The Truth About Cars » Product Reviews http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Tue, 09 Dec 2014 23:28:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0.1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Product Reviews http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com Book Review: “Car Guys Versus Bean Counters,” Take Two http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/10/book-review-car-guys-versus-bean-counters-take-two/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/10/book-review-car-guys-versus-bean-counters-take-two/#comments Tue, 04 Oct 2011 15:54:44 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=413458 Never assume that press accounts of what’s going on inside the auto companies resembles what’s actually going on. For my Ph.D. thesis, I inhabited General Motors’s product development organization much like an anthropologist might inhabit a Third World village. What I observed during my year-and-a-half on the inside bore virtually no resemblance to what I […]

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Never assume that press accounts of what’s going on inside the auto companies resembles what’s actually going on. For my Ph.D. thesis, I inhabited General Motors’s product development organization much like an anthropologist might inhabit a Third World village. What I observed during my year-and-a-half on the inside bore virtually no resemblance to what I read in the automotive press. Journalists aren’t inside the companies, have contact with select high-level insiders, and tend to print the PR-approved accounts these insiders provide. These accounts reflect how senior executives want outsiders to think the organization operates and performs much more than how it actually does. To the extent journalists know the reality—and few do any digging—they rarely print it. So I’ve refrained from even guessing at what’s been going on inside GM. Instead, I’ve been hoping that some insider would write an insightful account of the eventful past 10 to 15 years. None have, until ex-vice chairman Bob Lutz’s new book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: the Battle for the Soul of American Business. Lutz has a reputation for speaking his mind and straight shooting. What does his book tell us about what really went on inside GM?

Not much. Lutz’s lips might be moving, but he ain’t talking.

Unlike former “car czar” Steven Rattner’s recent tell-all or the “Corvette book” that enraged GM design executives back in the mid-90s, Lutz avoids naming names. Former CEO Rick Wagoner is rarely mentioned, as if Lutz had little direct interaction with him, and always in respectful terms: “Rick was a kind, intelligent CEO of spectacular human qualities.” Consequently, the adversaries in Lutz’s battle against the “bean counters” are faceless and his accounts of what happened are few and lack illuminating detail. We’re treated to a few brief examples of pre-Lutz products that sold poorly, but no detailed accounts of how better new cars were developed under his watch. Clearly corporate norms of what’s permissible to divulge to outsiders had a much higher priority than providing readers with insight into what really went on. As Edward Niedermeyer noted in his review, Lutz ultimately blames outsiders for GM’s fall, and lets his fellow executives off the hook. His book could have been incredible. Instead, for this review I’ve had to work with scraps.

Dealing with “them”

Ron Zarrella, head of GM North America back in the late 1990s, once remarked that he couldn’t do what he knew needed to be done to improve the company and its products because “they” wouldn’t let him. The response of the person in the room who relayed this to me: “I thought you was ‘they.’” The lesson: even those at the top felt powerless to change things because of some faceless “they,” so what hope could those lower down have?
Lutz takes some cheap shots at Zarrella, who as someone long-departed apparently isn’t protected by the executive code, but acknowledges a key failing shared by many intelligent people inside GM: Zarrella gave up. Lutz vaguely describes his own power as limited, but he didn’t give up. Relying on persuasion more than the direct exercise of power and aided by Wagoner’s unflagging support, he was able to make a few significant changes to GM’s way of doing things.

Too many brains, too little focus on what really matters

Lutz repeatedly argues that GM had over-intellectualized and over-complicated the task of developing a new car. The design process began in a room full of disturbingly casual, hirsute, beanbag-ensconced designers charged with envisioning “big ideas” (they failed to come up with anything useful). Marketing and the ad agencies it employed contributed boards that vividly and distinctively characterized the brands and their intended customers (they failed, too). A product planning group full of big brains applied complex analyses to vast amounts of data to deduce segment-busting new products like the Envoy XUV (which then failed to sell). Engineers required that every car meet a vast number of criteria that had accumulated over the decades. In one especially pernicious instance of the “tyranny of process over results,” the Vehicle Line Executives (VLEs) in charge of programs were awarded bonuses based on how well they achieved a large number of subgoals such as piece cost, build combinations, and time-to-market. Lutz recounts how one (unnamed) VLE demanded a bonus because his “scorecard” was all “green,” even though the product had received bad reviews and didn’t sell well. Struck speechless at the time, Lutz observes that “the obstacle has been, as always, pursuing a subgoal that was easy to game instead of putting the real objective above all.”

Design uber alles!

The real objective? Creating cars that sell. For Lutz, there is a simple way to achieve this overarching goal: make the cars look beautiful and expensive. Everything else is secondary, at best.

At the simplest, most superficial level, Lutz repeatedly had to direct designers to add more chrome trim. (Imagine: a world where GM had to be pushed to add more chrome by an exec brought in from outside.) But, as GM learned way back in 1958, chrome can’t fix everything. Even an executive with the so-rare-it’s-practically-raw good taste of Bob Lutz can’t draw a beautiful car on his own. You must free the designers to do what they do best.

To free the designers Lutz:

–eliminated the beanbag room

–eliminated the brand character nonsense

–greatly reduced the role of product planning (a hotbed of over-intellectualization whose focus on numbers squeezed out spontaneous creativity)

–pushed engineers to re-examine each criterion, and consequently discard many that were outmoded or that, due to an overly narrow focus, hurt more than they helped

–handed product responsibility to the VLE, usually short on good taste, and (un)focused on too many other things, only after the design was done

Eliminate handoffs.

Lutz added a handoff to the VLE after the design was complete. But within design he did the opposite, simplifying the design process by eliminating hand-offs from the advanced studios to the brand character studios to the production studios. The often disastrous consequences of these hand-offs in terms of both time-to-market and the appearance of the car came up often in my own research. Eliminating them should have been a no-brainer (and was among my recommendations), but GM was generally oblivious to how people work (or fail to work) together. In this case, and likely others, Lutz brought some much-needed common sense to GM’s top leadership.

We don’t need no education

Note the double negative. Wide, imprecise gaps between body panels endangered Lutz’s drive to make GM’s cars look more attractive and expensive. But this design problem couldn’t be fixed within his design bailiwick. Instead, the gaps were the result of “a generalized tolerance of sloppy [product] execution.” Lacking sufficient power to dictate a fix, Lutz kept bringing the issue up until the annoyed head of the metal fabrication group finally offered, “show me a car that has the fits you like, and we’ll do the same with ours.” Lutz showed this exec a 2002 Hyundai Sonata. The skilled engineers in metal fab then achieved the requested tight, precise gaps with shockingly little effort and expense. Apparently they’d never realized this was desired. Once educated by Lutz, they did much better. Enlightened and encouraged by this victory without losers, Lutz took his show on the road, educating the scattered tribes on how to recognize sloppiness and the need to eliminate it.

Working within the system

Lutz taught me about the danger of a cheap-looking interior. Indirectly, and through a negative example. Among his cars at Chrysler: the original Neon. I advised my sister to check it out. She summarily rejected the car because to her it looked so cheap inside. By the time he returned to GM, Lutz had also learned this lesson. Here as well he couldn’t dictate a fix. But he recognized (as did many of the people I spoke with for my thesis) that cheap interiors often happened because the interior is the last part of a car to get locked in. (There’s less lead time on interior components than on the body and the mechanical bits.) Consequently, any cost overruns over the course of the program had to be counteracted by downgrading the interior. Lutz couldn’t simply eliminate the bean counters’ cost controls. Instead, he intelligently worked within the system by removing interiors from the VLEs’ responsibilities and giving them a separate budget. This way cost overruns in the body, powertrain, or chassis couldn’t result in cheap interiors.

Half-truths without consequences

Lutz notes, without going into any specifics, that the VLEs and product planners didn’t like having their responsibilities reduced. But otherwise he ascribes no negative consequences to his empowerment of design and his war against “the tyranny of process.”

I observed the ridiculed processes inside GM, and can confirm they weren’t working. GM’s executives and managers devoted far too much time and effort to tactics and minutiae and far too little to strategy and the car as a whole. But the things the processes were supposed to do did need doing, and cannot be effectively done entirely by Lutz’s favored creative types. In his earlier book, Guts, Lutz writes eloquently of the need to combine “left-brained” and “right-brained” approaches. The new book does state that, under Lutz’s leadership, the “planning people” and the “idea people” developed mutual respect, where each recognized the value of the other’s work (while still not liking it). But, with no description of how these two groups actually worked together to create better cars, this comes across as the typical PR-approved “one big functional family” effluent. How well are the two approaches actually being combined?

For the beginnings of an answer we must look beyond the book’s unrevealing pages to the products Lutz oversaw. Many of the engineering criteria were unnecessary. But what about engineers’ legitimate priorities? Making the cars more comfortable, functional, or enjoyable to drive doesn’t really come up in the book. In fact, the opposite is the case: Lutz asserts that if a car looks good, buyers (essentially all of them, he’s anti-segmentation) will willingly sacrifice functionality. Creative, cross-functional, both-brained solutions that might make cars both look better and more functional? They don’t seem to have been explored. More broadly, it’s not clear that design and engineering work much better together now than they did earlier. Lutz might have simply shifted the shoe to the other foot. In his approach, there are a small number of top priorities (usually styling) and other things (like curb weight) are allowed to slide. This might explain why GM’s latest cars are hard to see out of, suffer from poor ergonomics, and hug the road with a few hundred extra pounds. While some buyers are won over by the cars’ styling, others are turned off by these shortcomings.

Lutz ad infinitum, by design

So, as vice-chairman in charge of new product development Lutz was able to get some desirable things done. The cars are more attractive inside and out, and drive more smoothly and quietly. But did he fix the core problem? Are GM’s many intelligent, talented people now more able to get done what they think needs to be done to create a better car? (Meaning without working laboriously up the hierarchy to somehow enlist the involvement of a sufficiently powerful senior executive.) Or, do the great majority of designers, engineers, and marketers remain nearly as frustrated now as they were pre-Lutz?
Unfortunately, on this question the book is silent. The role of personal judgment is clear. Design is important, and good design can only be recognized by someone with good judgment, not some left-brained type following a process. More broadly, judgment must fill in the void left by the eliminated processes. People must rely on their judgment, their “gut,” to make many different decisions with an eye to the superficially simple goal of selling more cars.

How many people possess the necessary judgment? Apparently not the VLEs who desperately need it. And if Lutz felt the need to constrain this high-ranking, carefully selected, thoroughly trained bunch within a new set of rules, then what hope is there for people lower in the organization? Though he spent much of his time educating the judgment of the multitudes, Lutz ultimately recognizes only one sufficiently gifted person—Lutz. How, then, can GM survive without him? Though he’s pushing eighty, apparently it can’t. Lutz retired—not for the first time—on May 1, 2010. But, as of last month, he’s back. Again. Still.

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Book Review: Car Guys vs Bean Counters: The Battle For The Soul Of American Business http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/06/book-review-car-guys-vs-bean-counters-the-battle-for-the-soul-of-american-business/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/06/book-review-car-guys-vs-bean-counters-the-battle-for-the-soul-of-american-business/#comments Fri, 24 Jun 2011 18:50:46 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=400059 I can’t say that I was completely surprised when, about two thirds of the way through Bob Lutz’s new book Car Guys vs Bean Counters, I caught a sideswipe at myself and The Truth About Cars, which the retired Vice-Chairman of GM describes as a Web site that often offers anything but. After all, TTAC […]

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I can’t say that I was completely surprised when, about two thirds of the way through Bob Lutz’s new book Car Guys vs Bean Counters, I caught a sideswipe at myself and The Truth About Cars, which the retired Vice-Chairman of GM describes as

a Web site that often offers anything but.

After all, TTAC and “Maximum Bob” have long been sparring partners, and were indirectly debating the fate and fortunes of General Motors well before I ever started writing about cars. What was surprising was that this passing shot at TTAC’s credibility would actually help bring us, two presumptive arch-enemies in the world of automotive ideas, to a better understanding of each other. The exchange that a single paragraph prompted taught me that, against all odds, Bob and I share a fundamental character trait: we are at our best when we’ve been goaded into action by a no-holds-barred call-out. In celebration of this shared value, let’s take off the gloves and give Car Guys the unflinching look it deserves.

Like almost everything that has ever issued from the mind of Robert Anthony Lutz, Car Guys vs Bean Counters is defined by his maximum maxim “often wrong, but never in doubt.” As you might expect, this perspective produces writing that possesses many of the same strengths and weaknesses as the cars Lutz oversaw. The prose is direct and authentic, as unmistakably the product of one man’s vision as a Viper or Volt. And like those definitive Lutz-mobiles, Car Guys offers a seductive vision that tickles every erogenous zone in the “car guy” worldview, resulting in a flood of uncritical fawning from the motor press. But, like the Volt and Viper, Car Guys is also a deeply compromised proposition, in which profound insights reside next door to excuses, misdirection and questionable self-congratulation.

Like Guts before it, Car Guys is at its best when Lutz is describing the inner workings of the companies he helped run. His ability to draw a straightforward narrative from the complexity of not only a giant multinational corporation, but its historical and economic context as well is not surprising given his well-known affinity for “cutting through the crap.” Lutz has long admitted to being something of a holdover from another era, a man who has reveled in being contemptuously out-of-step with mainstream American culture since the turmoil of 1960s. This perspective allows him to wade through the complexity of GM’s decades-long fall from grace, a topic that has inspired hundreds of “GM Deathwatch” articles here at TTAC, in fewer than 70 pages. And though the narrative slips by with disarming clarity, fueled by a writing style that is authoritative yet personal, like an after-class conversation over a stiff drink with a favorite professor, one can’t help but feel that Lutz is perhaps too talented at boiling down complexity for his own good.

After a fantastic preface and a brief introduction to his 2001 return to GM, Lutz opens his narrative with paean to The General’s post-war golden age, in which “true car guys” like Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell ran GM with inspired abandon, behaving badly while producing cars that became eternal symbols of America’s finest hour. It’s a natural subject for Lutz, who clearly identifies with this bygone era, and he blows through its good, bad and ugly aspects with insight and pith (if, perhaps, too much sympathy for those who failed to see the gathering stormclouds). But when the thunder starts rolling in the early to mid-1970s, not coincidentally around the same that Lutz began to see himself as a man apart from his times, Lutz’s unshakeable sense of certitude becomes more of a liability than an asset.

Any book with a title that includes the word “versus” can be expected to be well-stocked with villains, and certainly GM’s “bean counters” are the obvious candidate. After the excesses of the Mitchell era, in which design exercised haphazard (if successful) dominance, Lutz argues that GM’s “Empire of finance, accounting, law and order… struck back,” as design became a “link in the chain” rather than the ultimate source of GM’s success. The replacement of Mitchell with Irv Rybicki in 1977 is identified as the turning point in the balance of power between GM’s “car guys” and “bean counters,” and with that sea change, Lutz argues

Waste, arrogance and hubris are never desirable characteristics, but the company rid itself of these at a terrible price. The ebullient, seductive volcano of creation had been transformed into a quiet mountain with a gently smoking hole at the top, spewing forth mediocrity upon mediocrity. This shift to the predictable, so seductive to the bean counters, destroyed the company’s ability to compete and conquer.

It’s a compelling argument, and Lutz supports it well with insights into the accompanying shifts in culture at GM design and product development. But Car Guys‘ cast of villains isn’t limited to GM’s overly-left-brained, clueless-about-the-product finance chiefs. Or, as Lutz puts it, “not all wounds were self-inflicted.” And this is where things start to fall apart.

After devoting six pages of the chapter “The Beginning Of The End,” Lutz goes on to spend the remaining 22 pages blaming forces outside of GM’s control for the firm’s epic, slow-motion collapse. The UAW, which traditionally gets a lot of blame for not just the decline of GM but for the entire downturn of America’s auto industry, is actually let off quite easily, as Lutz argues that GM’s inability to confront the union was

a tragedy with no heroes, but also no villains.

But Lutz is not simply repeating the old maxim that success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan. His cast of villains in GM’s decades of tragedy is legion: government regulators, Japanese currency manipulators, environmentalists, trial lawyers and above all, the media, are all attacked with vigor, leading to the distinct impression that GM was victim of the short-sighted stupidity of others. This is the ultimate contradiction of Car Guys: though the title sets up an internal conflict within GM, Lutz spends so much space blaming outsiders for GM’s woes that, by a third of the way through, it begins to feel more like apologia than clear-eyed soul-searching. And reinforcing this perception is the fact that the very first words of Car Guys are

This book is dedicated to the hard working men and women, at all levels, hourly and salaried, in the domestic US automobile industry. The problems, mostly, were not your fault!

Of course it must then be asked whether Lutz’s villains actually deserve their apportioned amount of blame, as this question of fact decides whether Lutz is a thoughtful student of GM’s (and Detroit’s) history, or an unrepentant apologist. On the issue of CAFE regulation, Lutz argues convincingly that

A programmed, gradual rise in fuel taxation, along the European model, would have caused consumers to think of the future consequences of today’s purchase and would have provided a natural incentive to move down a notch, opting for six cylinders instead of eight, midsize sedans instead of large.

Lutz goes on to explain in persuasive detail (with help from Jack Hazen) how the CAFE-inspired whiplash led to GM’s disastrous wholesale shift to front-drive and smaller cars. But his logic falls short in the sense that he fails to assign blame for GM’s inability to foresee energy constraints or to engineer competent solutions to it. The argument, in essence, is that foreign competitors hadn’t been lulled into complacency by artificially-low gas prices, and had long invested in fuel-efficient platforms and technologies. And yet no connection is ever made between GM’s “golden age” culture of style-driven excess and the erosion of engineering investments which led to GM’s desultory efforts in the 1970s and 80s. The government’s lack of foresight and and courage, rather than GM’s, is unfairly awarded the brunt of Lutz’s criticism.

Once on this trajectory, Lutz goes on to argue that Japan’s currency manipulation and “airtight protectionist umbrella,” a worn-out hobbyhorse of Detroit apologists with no strong documentation beyond vague Cold War geopolitical theory, combined with the fuel-efficiency experience of the Japanese automakers lent the foreign invaders a “teachers pet” image that was, in the words of Hazen, “eagerly snapped up by the liberal anti-US corporation media.” He only mentions Toyota’s crucial innovations in production and corporate culture only to note that they did not initially spread from NUMMI to the rest of GM with much success, but then goes on to indict Toyota-inspired “Total Quality Excellence” consultants for misleading GM’s leaders into a fog of meaningless numbers.

After defending the UAW (presumably also from the “liberal media,” despite the fact that his “solution” amounts to universal healthcare and little else), Lutz devotes much of the remaining blame to the media. I certainly sympathize with the frustration at a press crops that too often clings to convenient storylines rather than seeking a more complex truth, but what Lutz seems to miss as he rips into the media with gusto, is that his counter-narrative is no more subtle nor intrinsically true than the “import good, Detroit bad” perspective he savages. More importantly, his media-conspiracy boogeyman ignores the elephant in the room: had GM made even a few extremely good products during the 70s, 80s and 90s, its moribund reputation might well have been rehabilitated. At the end of the day, Lutz’s villains seem to be little more than glorified context, the backdrop for the real story: GM’s lack of vision, courage and competence.

Luckily, though Lutz doesn’t do enough to allocate blame where it was due, his return to GM gives him occasion to describe what decades of decline had wrought at the RenCen. Sclerotic bureaucracy, visionless leadership, enslavement to meaningless metrics and the resulting uninspired products are all on hand for Lutz’s 2001 return to GM, as if Japanese perfidy, governmental timidity and media criticism had somehow infected one of the world’s largest corporations with a cancer that had inexorably metastasized to corrupt every level of GM’s organization (except for trucks and SUVs, which magically continued to display an inexplicable immunity to these diseases). Of course these faults operate as implicit assignments of blame, but rather than dwelling on their causes (with the exception of Japanese-inspired “Total Quality Excellence experts”), Lutz uses them as his foil for the remainder of the book.

As he dissects inane corporate initiative after wasted resource in the immediate aftermath of his return to the RenCen, Lutz once again hits his stride. And yet, in an almost strange turn of consistency, his shift from apology for, to criticism of GM occurs without the sense of interpersonal conflict that one would expect in such a transition. In what is likely part insightful truth and part gentlemanly whitewash, Lutz frames his battle as being not with any one “bean counter” but a faceless (and therefore, blameless) culture in which management-by-the-numbers outweighed personal accountability. Lutz identifies individual “true believers” who he recruited in his design and product-led transformation of The General, but essentially absolves the thousands of others, including then-CEO Rick Wagoner, of any responsibility for GM’s continued decline and eventual collapse.

Luckily the portions of the book describing his efforts at turning around GM’s culture are extremely engaging, and will probably be the most insightful of the book to regular TTAC readers. As a commentator on GM’s fortunes over the last three years, I certainly wish I could have been more exposed to these internal battles over design conception, sheet metal techniques, perceptual quality, global vision and consumer-orientation as they were playing out in real time. The extent to which GM had gone down the “bean counter” rabbit hole is eye-popping, and Lutz clearly relished the challenge of working his “creative destruction” upon the staid, uncreative product development process.

The Lutz-led revolution at GM appropriately culminates in the Chevrolet Volt, a concept born wholly of the Lutzian gut and inspired by competitive pique at the Prius’s success and the conviction that Americans would not accept the limitations of pure-electric cars. The Volt’s genesis is both a tribute to the right-brained, inspiration-dependent, individual-driven culture that Lutz champions, but as I pointed out in the NY Times op-ed that Lutz disparages in the book, the single-minded pursuit of an epiphany can create serious compromises. To wit:

General Motors introduced America to the Chevrolet Volt at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show as a low-slung concept car that would someday be the future of motorized transportation. It would go 40 miles on battery power alone, promised G.M., after which it would create its own electricity with a gas engine. Three and a half years — and one government-assisted bankruptcy later — G.M. is bringing a Volt to market that makes good on those two promises. The problem is, well, everything else.

But Lutz remains convinced “Volt is the future,” and attacks “the lunatic left and the vocal right” along with “inveterate GM haters” who doubt the Volt’s promise (I wonder where I fit there). He blames much of the anti-Volt sentiment on the bailout, which, like GM’s initial fall from grace in the 1970s, he blames more on external forces than any fundamental failing on GM’s part. He concludes with optimism for GM’s post-bailout future, but waxes pessimistic about the state of American culture and business. His lessons here are valuable, and build to an inspiring call to substitute pride of product for short-term profit-seeking, a vision I certainly relate to as I seek to guide TTAC around the soulless, PR and SEO-driven “path to success” that so many blogs and websites follow and are well-rewarded for. At the end of the day (or in this case, the book), it’s good to know that intrinsic quality has a noisy advocate in the corporate world.

But with Lutz’s ultimate legacy at GM still undecided (as his goal was to create a sustainable culture of excellence that is not yet undeniable), it’s hard not to take much of his work with a grain of salt. After all, the Solstice/Sky may have defied most perceptions of GM at the time with its rapid, design-forward development, but couldn’t it have benefitted from some measured, left-brain analysis of such trifling metrics as interior ergonomics, and roof operation? Again, Lutz’s choice of title is instructive: in his “pre-complexity” perspective, the way forward was a war between two extremes… a reflection perhaps of what he describes in Guts as “a certain duality of mind.” Hopefully future generations can learn from the struggle that he frames, but with the recognition that his struggle is not eternal. After nearly 100 years spent under the spell of either out-of-control “car guys” or unimaginative “bean counters” one hopes the new GM (and, indeed, the entire business community) understands that sustainable success requires both sides working in harmony towards a common cause.

Car Guys vs Bean Counters is available at Amazon.com, and other fine book retailers.

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Review: Test Drive Unlimited 2 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/03/review-test-drive-unlimited-2/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/03/review-test-drive-unlimited-2/#comments Thu, 31 Mar 2011 19:43:25 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=389347 Test Drive Unlimited 2 (TDU2) is the latest pistonhead-oriented video game, a genre I’ve enjoyed since Test Drive first arrived in 1987. My PS3 usually spins two amazing time wasters: Gran Turismo 5 (GT5) for sheer hotshoe geekiness and the Grand Theft Auto series (GTA) for snark, storyline and reality-blurring gameplay. TDU2 sets out to […]

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Test Drive Unlimited 2 (TDU2) is the latest pistonhead-oriented video game, a genre I’ve enjoyed since Test Drive first arrived in 1987. My PS3 usually spins two amazing time wasters: Gran Turismo 5 (GT5) for sheer hotshoe geekiness and the Grand Theft Auto series (GTA) for snark, storyline and reality-blurring gameplay. TDU2 sets out to blend elements of both, making it unique and intriguing in concept alone. But does the promise of a game that’s less serious than GT5 but more car-focused than GTA work in practice?

True to the GTA-side of the equation, TDU2 is escapism incarnate: you start in Ibiza (Hawaii comes later), the island famous for catering to the wealthy party-going set. That implies the need for top dollar super cars, flashy SUVs, and old school classics. The need for low-rent valets is obvious. That’s who “you” are: a hotel car-jockey daydreaming of a Jack Baruth racing lifestyle.

It’s a fun premise: TDU2 starts with poolside trust fund babies in a Penthouse apartment. You decide which person (avatar) best represents you: White/Black/Asian guy or girl. This sucks if you are a brown person but eventually I found a plastic surgery center, spent thousands of dollars and made “him” look more like me. Yes, really.

Back to the Penthouse: we learn that said party is in your honor. And there’s a gift in the garage: a Ferrari California! A woman wearing a dress tighter than Chrysler’s operating profit wants you to drive it. There are Barbie-doll females aplenty, but this is a “T for Teen” rated game: car-related dialogue matches the labored smack talk of a Fast And Furious flick. Ordinary conversations are whitewashed to the point of vapid PR jabber. Worse still, the majority of characters are complete douchebags, even the nice folks are fake and robotic compared to GTA.

Then again, there’s no Holy Grail of car-gaming communications: unlike GT5, TDU2 never insists on a catalytic converter upgrade on a pre-emissions vehicle. Good for them.

Back to the game, your birthday party is just a dream. And “you” wake up as a lowly valet, working up the ranks of a racing series called Solar Crown. The premise is kid friendly: TDU2 gets youngsters interested in cars by adding the social gaming elements of Xbox/PS3 consoles into the pistonhead mix. Kids won’t forget their smart phone aspirations, but TDU2 could make them lust for a Pagani Zonda.

Let’s dig into the social world: unlike GT5, one gets out of their car to do stuff. And you will explore: TDU2 demands purchasing more houses, more cars, attending (terribly pointless) driving schools and interacting with fellow racers on a variety of fronts.

My “favs” include car spots sprinkled around Ibiza: brand specific dealerships, performance garages, and automotive window dressings available via body shops. The free-roam gameplay is entertaining, kept organized by a map so beautifully detailed it makes Google Earth blush and GTA weep in agony. Much like said map, TDU2’s graphics are excellent, but the cars aren’t rendered to the point of GT5’s car-porn realism.

Too bad TDU2’s driving simulator is not for those old enough for a driver’s license. Vehicle dynamics contain enough vague responses to put away the race seat/feedback tiller in favor of a normal controller. And you must drive everywhere, at least once: unlike the geographically-diverse environment of GTA San Andreas, this gets old quickly. Making things worse, the music and DJ chatter is derivative, dull and repetitive. Earning TDU2’s style points for fast driving is also difficult, adding frustration for those with inflamed ADHD. City-to-city travel should let you have your cake and eat it too: this game takes too long to get to the goods, it’s an exercise in patience.

But, like the others, TDU2 lets one drive like a maniac without the pitfalls of vehicle collisions and their associated legal fees. Speaking of, there’s little damage upon impact and the island is deserted, aside from vehicular traffic. But the in-car views of the island are thrilling: watching the Lotus Espirt’s needles move to the right at full throttle was a great thrill compared to the UR-Accolade version of this game.

Back to why this is a non-driving simulator: while not a raging fan of online play, meeting fellow racers in the (awesomely rendered) clubhouse was wicked-cool. There were challenges aplenty created by fellow gamers, available at an activity desk. Back on the road, if you spot someone worth challenging, flash your lights, wait for confirmation, and get ready to rumble.

I’ve barely scratched the surface in this review, mostly because it feels like explaining the concept of an all-inclusive resort to someone that’s never seen an airport. This YouTube review will narrow the gap. If you like online interaction and wish to endlessly modify parameters such as the design of your homes/cars/avatar, this game can go on forever. Even with the driving simulator flaws and utterly trite dialogue, TDU2 is worth owning. If you have kids.

Atari provided a copy of Test Drive Unlimited 2 for this review.

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Review: Gran Turismo 5 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/review-gran-turismo-5/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/review-gran-turismo-5/#comments Mon, 06 Dec 2010 20:30:09 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=375929 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Time and time again, it’s the comparison that kept occurring to me as I played Gran Turismo 5 on my PS3. The fruit of years – and years of development, Sony’s Forza-killer was finally bestowed upon us this November. Befitting its immense gestation period, the game is a mix of […]

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Time and time again, it’s the comparison that kept occurring to me as I played Gran Turismo 5 on my PS3. The fruit of years – and years of development, Sony’s Forza-killer was finally bestowed upon us this November. Befitting its immense gestation period, the game is a mix of out-dated user interfaces and standard cars and tracks, a sublime driving engine, and incredible detail on some of the newer premium cars. Originally targeted at Forza Motorsport 2, it came out after Forza 3, and it plays like something in between the two.

Polyphony, the game’s developer, went for the bulk approach here in order to clear the 1,000-car mark. Everyone begins the game with standard cars. I began the game with a ‘93 Silvia, whose wheels I couldn’t change, whose interior I could not view, and whose engine I could not turbocharge. It felt straight out of GT2, let alone GT5. It’s not actually until you move up to the premium cars that the game’s 2009 and 2010 development years are apparent.

Those premium cars are styled beautifully, with incredible attention to detail. Assume the cockpit view, and, if you’ve got a 1080P plasma HDTV, it’s as close as you can get to the real thing for under $100.

It’s much the same with other aspects of the game. The game’s user interface is so cluttered with tiny buttons, it harkens to an Acura’s center stack from the earlier parts of this decade. The execution is similarly lacking. Tap “cancel” to leave GT (career) mode, for example, and you don’t actually leave GT mode. You get to a red button, which you must hit again in order to leave GT mode. It wouldn’t be so bad, were it not for the fact that you actually have to leave GT mode to collect the prizes you win during career races! Meanwhile, I’ve never seen a game whose interface is so ridiculous that developers actually have to provide a zoom feature for users to decipher all of the buttons.

The online play provides more dismal results. Back in Forza 2’s heyday, I could download the fastest posted lap with a given car on a given track and try to chase it in order to better myself. Forza 3 later, and GT’s online mode is limited to some generic racing. Great. Though we shan’t enter into a PSNet vs. Xbox live discussion, suffice it to say online mode trailed Forza 2 and is left in the dust by Forza 3.

Finally, the customization options are the most lacking of all. Standard cars can be upgraded, but only with non-branded generic parts such as “High RPM Turbocharger” or “Supercharger”. Most pathetic of all: you can’t upgrade your brakes. Ever. So forget about six-piston Brembos like in Forza 3 (or 2, for that matter). Of course, licensing items costs money and takes time, but let’s not forget this game’s been eons in the making.

The tracks, like the cars, are definitely two-tiered, with some getting and incredible treatment and offering picturesque views while others offer what could only be called “2D Mania”.

So what’s the Dr. Jekyll to all of the Dr. Jekyll above? Two things: Pure racing and special events.

GT5’s driving engine remains sublime, on-par or better with Forza’s depending on who you ask. This game incorporates all kinds of racing – from the extreme (snow, dirt, weather changes, night racing, drifting, NASCAR to the zany (driving a VW Bus around the Top Gear airfield) to the traditional (flinging a Ferrari around Rome) to the downright cool (testing AMG’s at Mercedes’ home track). And every single mode of driving is phenomenal.

Drive a NASCAR car and you can feel the strange mix of the car’s heaviness and its gradually increasing fickleness as you pick up speed. Drive a VW Bus and you’re almost nervous about tip-over.Your controller with rumble with the torque steer of a juiced up FWD car, and your rear will break loose as you’d expect if you gun it too early upon exit. Brake too hard while turning and say hello to lift oversteer at the rear.There’s no Need For Speed-style fantasy physics here, it’s all the real deal.

Unfortunately, even the game’s best aspects were not immune to the pervasive issues that plague the rest of the game. The damage modelling is mostly cosmetic and ineffectual. The GT mode is a grind, involving racing and re-racing the same tracks over and over again to level up, to get better and bigger parts. And of course, the AI is as deficient as its always been in the series. Take the lead on it, stay on the driving line and it may never actually pass you, no matter how slow you’re going.

It’s tough to know what to make of GT5. Every single time it pleases with an exquisitely delivered race, you know Mr. Hyde lurks in the shadows – lo and behold, here’s an eternal loading screen then dizzying array of buttons and Japanese elevator music. It’s the only game I can describe as both immensely frustrating and immensely satisfying at the same time.

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Book Review: Sixty To Zero [Part II] http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/08/book-review-sixty-to-zero-part-ii/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/08/book-review-sixty-to-zero-part-ii/#comments Thu, 19 Aug 2010 18:06:54 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=363320 Editor’s Note: Part One of Michael Karesh’s review of Sixty To Zero can be found here. Journalists write stories. A coherent story is a partial truth at best. If it’s portrayed as the whole story, it’s a lie. In Sixty to Zero, veteran auto industry journalist Alex Taylor III provides an unusual level of insight […]

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Editor’s Note: Part One of Michael Karesh’s review of Sixty To Zero can be found here.

Journalists write stories. A coherent story is a partial truth at best. If it’s portrayed as the whole story, it’s a lie.

In Sixty to Zero, veteran auto industry journalist Alex Taylor III provides an unusual level of insight into the relationships between top auto industry journalists and the executives they cover. He acknowledges getting too close to these executives more than once, and blames this for several embarrassingly off-base articles. But even in his most self-reflective moments, Taylor fails to recognize an even larger source of distortion.

Taylor’s explanation for the collapse of GM is simple: the company’s senior executives were removed from reality, wedded to the past, and unwilling to act quickly and decisively to fix their firms’ mounting problems. Ford’s Mulally, according to Taylor, indicates the path Wagoner should have taken at GM. Though true to a point, this explanation doesn’t nearly go far enough. It’s not only simple, it’s too simple.

In Taylor’s view, “the history of nearly every auto company revolves around the CEO.” He has sought and received far less contact with people lower in the auto company organizations—even Bob Lutz, since he was merely a vice chairman, is a “lesser executive” who normally would not have received frequent press attention.

Why such a strong focus on the CEO? For starters, Taylor is clearly moved by status and prestige, the qualities embodied by the CEO position. Taylor’s approach to journalism is also strongly influenced by the desire to tell a good story and sell magazines. Individuals are easier to understand and more enjoyable to write and read about than teams or organizations. Just as Taylor was most interested in talking to CEOs, readers tend to be most interested in reading about CEOs.

Taylor does note in passing that the role of the CEO has been exaggerated: “When a company is performing well, there is an understandable impulse to attribute the success to the CEO and to examine his actions in light of that.” He also notes that “projecting the capabilities of the CEO onto an entire management is especially problematic for a company as large and complex as GM.” Despite these realizations, however, Taylor continued to do both.

Most of all, Taylor never seems to fully grasp that CEOs—even the good ones—have a severely limited and distorted view of what goes on inside their companies. The ideal access he describes, to shadow the CEO as he goes about his daily work, is a step in the right direction. With such access, he might see what a CEO actually says and does, and not have to rely on what the CEO claims, in interviews, to be saying and doing. But even if the CEO does and says what he would normally do and say while being shadowed, this assumes that all of the important activities inside these companies involve the CEO, or at least occur with the CEO in the room.

I must admit to an unfair advantage. Back in the late 1990s I spent 18 months practically living inside various parts of General Motors while conducting field research for my Ph.D. thesis. I attended over 400 working-level meetings within program management, design, marketing, and engineering, and spent entire days as a fly on the wall inside the Design Center. I rarely saw a senior executive. I never saw the CEO.

In one instance, Taylor shadowed Wagoner during a meeting with design executives. But did the real design work happen with Wagoner in the room? Should it have? During the days I spent inside GM, real work only happened when executives were not in the room. When the executives arrived, the real work stopped and the “dog and pony show” began. Beyond this, it quickly became apparent that within GM, and I later learned within just about any organization of any size, scant information makes it up even two levels, much less all the way from the product development teams to the CEO. Whatever information does make it has been heavily massaged. By continuously relying on CEOs as his predominant source of information, Taylor has been fated to keep repeating the same mistakes.

Compounding the problem, Taylor and his colleagues influence the industry that they cover. Executives want to have positive articles written about them, and so further exaggerate how much they can personally know and do. No one gets positive press by acknowledging their limits. After one debacle, GM’s Jack Smith continued to assert that he was well-informed about what was going throughout the organization, as if this were really possible, and tht he was not “out of the loop.” Wagoner convinced Taylor that “he was no forty-thousand-foot manager; he was intimately involved in key areas of the business” and comfortably interacting with everyone from engineers to dealers. Taylor never appears to have tested such claims by actually talking with people lower in the organization.

This exaggeration of the CEO’s role and the CEO’s abilities has been repeatedly validated by the resulting magazine articles. Cults of the CEO have been born and sustained. Encouraged by the press, auto companies concentrate decision-making (or a lack thereof) at the top of the organization even more than they might otherwise.

What both the journalists and most CEOs miss: the best senior executives develop teams of experts much lower in the organization, enable these teams to do their jobs well, then let them do their jobs. Mulally has made some tough decisions at Ford, but he has also focused on eliminating infighting and building teamwork within the organization. Mulally isn’t a car guy, and he knows he’s not a car guy. If he’s as smart as he’s reputed to be, he lets the car guys lower in the organization do their jobs without even pretending to be intimately involved in what they do.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the story one is likely to hear while interviewing a senior executive. Even if the executive does talk about “the organization,” such an account cannot compete with the portrayal of an individual executive for color and doesn’t make for a dramatic article the way killing a brand, publicly taking on the UAW, or a “ritual firing” does. Taylor repeatedly wishes for more “ritual firings”—his term, not mine.

The unrecognized problem with ritual firings: at best they assume that the individual fired was responsible for the mistake, and that other individuals would not have made the same mistake. At worst, they realize this, but don’t care. It’s just fun to watch heads roll. Taylor notes that executive firings were historically much more common at Ford, and that Mulally’s suppression of political infighting improved the company’s performance. Strangely, Taylor does not seem to learn from this that ritual firings don’t improve company performance.

Taylor also calls for auto company CEOs to take more risks, but this seems more than a little cliché. What sort of risks would he have them take? Jack Smith and Rick Wagoner get little credit for GM’s big bet on China. Don Peterson gets labeled an odd “iconoclast” for taking Ford in unusual directions. Roger Smith took many risks while CEO of GM, and gets severely criticized for each of them. Lutz receives mild praise for having some minor successes while avoiding disasters. Taylor wants risks without failures. But the real possibility of failure is what makes a risk a risk.

Taylor’s suggestions that executives should both take more risks and fire more people for mistakes comprise a recipe for firing lots of people. The “ritual firings” he wishes for would discourage the risk-taking he also wishes for. These are contradictory recommendations.

In reality, while there are some bad executives, all too often there are good executives placed within social systems that make it virtually impossible to make good decisions. Unless senior executives fix the underlying problem, which is the organization, not the individuals within it, they’ll just keep firing executive after executive.

Auto industry journalists like Taylor, by celebrating CEOs and largely ignoring the rest of the large organizations they lead, and by repeatedly focusing on the symptoms rather than the underlying problem, have themselves been part of the problem.

By focusing so intently on CEOs, and relying on interviews with them as his primary sources of information, Taylor has, without ever realizing it, spent decades building overly close relationships with the wrong people. Assuming, of course, that the goal was to accurately report what was going on inside these companies, and not making friends with important people in the process of selling more magazines.

I’d like to learn what’s really going on inside these companies, and how and how well they’re actually operating. Such a story makes it into the automotive press perhaps once every five to ten years. We have had insiders share bits of their knowledge, insights, and perspective here at TTAC from time to time. But true investigative journalism, where a writer builds relationships with people throughout these large organizations, and is able to report what’s really going on as a result? There are a number of reasons this still hasn’t happened—among them the very real possibility of “witch hunts” like the one Taylor describes—but I’m still hoping.

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Book Review: Sixty To Zero http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/08/book-review-sixty-to-zero/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/08/book-review-sixty-to-zero/#comments Tue, 17 Aug 2010 17:45:16 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=363128 With Sixty to Zero, leading auto industry journalist Alex Taylor III claims to provide “an inside look at the collapse of General Motors – and the Detroit auto industry.” The book is well worth reading, but not because it actually provides this inside look. Instead, this book, atypically as much personal memoir as history, lets […]

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With Sixty to Zero, leading auto industry journalist Alex Taylor III claims to provide “an inside look at the collapse of General Motors – and the Detroit auto industry.” The book is well worth reading, but not because it actually provides this inside look. Instead, this book, atypically as much personal memoir as history, lets us peer inside the life and mind of a top auto journalist. A close read suggests why such journalists provide little insight into what really goes on inside the auto companies.

Taylor’s coverage of the auto industry for the past three decades (like much of business journalism) has been based heavily on interviews with senior executives, and especially with CEOs. In his book, he describes how journalists seek to build close relationships with executives, and avoid jeopardizing these relationships. Admiring articles written to build relationships with executives even have an insider label: “beat sweeteners.” Smart executives work this desire to build relationships to their advantage. As Taylor notes, “There’s nothing like a little personal attention from a top executive to win over a journalist.”

These relationships between journalists and executives come across as intensely personal. In describing each executive, Taylor focuses on their mannerisms, how they dressed, and whether he personally liked them. Roger Smith had a “high, squeaky voice and jittery mannerisms.” Lee Iacocca: “an insecure man who wore his neuroses on his sleeve.” Bob Stempel: “a big, beefy man [who] would become visibly angry, his face turning red, when he became irked” and “the classroom grind who gets ahead not by virtue of his smarts or quick wit but because he works harder than everyone else.” Lloyd Reuss: “dressed like a riverboat gambler…but underneath he was another GM suit who always saw good times just around the corner.” Bob Eaton: “a peculiar personality that put some people off…his usual expression was of vague stomach upset.” Jürgen Schrempp: “Iacocca’s ego and ambition and none of his insecurity…an imposing man with enormous energy and an irresistible personality.” Dieter Zetsche: “an intense intelligence with an instinctive flair for personal relations…[I] never failed to be charmed by his candor, wit, and the literal twinkle in his eye…he said all the right things.” Rick Wagoner: “smart, personable, and thoughtful.” Mulally: “the personality of an Eagle Scout who had memorized How to Win Friends and Influence People and dressed like a scoutmaster.”

Bob Lutz is a special case. The lusty personal description, too lengthy to reproduce here, includes “the body of a gymnast,” “übermale,” and Savile Row suits “to show off his physique.” Summing up: “Favored with exceptional physical equipment and a psyche that allowed him to give it full expression, Lutz became the center of attention wherever he went in automotive circles. It was a role that he enjoyed and played to the hilt.”

With Iacocca and Lutz in particular these relationships formed “a special club in which [the executive] controlled the membership.” Taylor further describes the relationship between the press and Lutz as “a longtime romance that Lutz cleverly exploited…he pretended we were equal partners in his five-star world of fast cars and international travel.” Taylor guarded a special relationship with Iacocca but ultimately opted not to join “the Lutz club.” As he candidly explains, “I was intimidated by his überness,” “I found his need for attention to be exhausting,” and “hordes of other writers were enamored of Lutz; I didn’t want to get in line.”

These relationships were not always smooth ones. Those times when Taylor did write a critical article he often received a vigorous response from the covered executive. In the most colorful example, Taylor described how Stempel “once forced me to sit and listen while he read one of my articles aloud, correcting me on every point he disputed.” He then notes that this performance in conjunction with Stempel’s physical size and CEO position “created the unmistakable impression that he was bullying me.” Later on, GM’s status as a major advertiser led the magazine to arrange a “sit-down” among Taylor, two other editors, and six of the auto makers’ top executives. In another case, Ford CEO Trotman first tried to use personal connections to kill a story, and when this failed began a “great witch hunt” in search of the leak. Taylor does not acknowledge any way in which these responses shaped his writing, but could they have had no effect?

Most unusually, Taylor acknowledges how often he has been wrong. With both Jack Smith and Rick Wagoner he was acutely embarrassed by incorrectly reporting that GM had turned a corner; another Fortune contributor had to write that the company might go bankrupt. He was sold on Zetsche’s plans for Chrysler. Though he was usually unduly optimistic, this wasn’t always the case. Taylor thought Mulally would fail at Ford because he was an outsider who didn’t dress or talk the way a CEO ought to (in Taylor’s personal view).

Taylor attempts to explain these errors. Blame generally goes to personal attachment to the CEO in question—getting too close—and a desire to write a positive story. He acknowledges “gulping” the “GM Kool-Aid” and allowing his personal feelings for a CEO to influence his opinions about the company. With hindsight he realizes that “executives almost always look relaxed and confident; that’s part of their job,” and so he should not have read much into GM’s CEO appearing relaxed and confident. He recognizes that executives like Lutz are acting out roles—but still seems to have accepted much of what they said at face value.

In the end, we are left wondering how much of the mainstream media’s coverage has been distorted by personal relationships and personal feelings. It seems to be a very small, tight club, where people cannot help but become friends with many of the executives they are reporting on. Does anyone who gets close enough to gather inside information necessarily end up too close? Can people write appropriately critical stories about their friends? To his credit, Taylor seems quite aware how these factors have affected his coverage, and assigns them much of the blame for his missteps.

But this isn’t the whole story. The second part of this review explores other, perhaps more serious limitations inherent in Taylor’s methods—which he doesn’t seem to recognize.

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