General Motors Death Watch 6: Petard Hoisting

Jon Arnett
by Jon Arnett
general motors death watch 6 petard hoisting

Mr. Witzenburg's recent TTAC editorial criticized Mr. Farago for his anti-GM bias and asked us to give the domestic automaker a fair shake. While I respect Mr. Witzenburg's loyalty and patriotism, he seems to have overlooked the fact that his former employer makes some truly awful automobiles. As the cornerstone of his defence, the automotive journalist asked readers to name one– just one– poorly-made car from the General Motors line-up. Alright then, what about the Chevrolet Cavalier?

My best friend, sister and mother all had the displeasure of owning a Cavalier ('94, '00, '04). During their stewardship, pieces fell off, the electronics failed (headlights, windows, and stereo) and there were several major mechanical failures (transmission starter, alternator and master brake cylinder). Witzenburg may dismiss these complaints as relating to an "old" design, but their saga is not peculiar to the Cavalier. Perhaps owners of other GM products would like to email their tales of woe to Mr. Witzenburg. Anyway, a car company is only as good/bad as their weakest model.

I also reject Witzenburg's argument that build quality is everything; he claims you can't criticize a GM product simply because you don't like it. Sorry? Why not? Despite Mr. Witzenberg's affections for JD Power, 'objective' quality surveys are not the ultimate measure of an automaker's products. It's whether or not people like their vehicles enough to buy them. Is Witzenburg saying that people are "wrong" because they don't like a GM car's looks, handling, performance or cost of ownership? GM may still sell a Hell of a lot of cars, but their declining market share says it's GM– not its customers– that's been getting it badly wrong, for a long, long time. To suggest otherwise is blaming the victim.

There's another way to gauge the public's general regard for GM's products: depreciation. If GM was making great cars, they'd all hold their value like a Honda Accord. They don't. For example, within one year, the aforementioned Cavaliers shed nearly 45% of their original value. In fact, the pro-GM writer should click-on-over to and have a look at the used car values right across the GM range. There's no better place to get a feel for how little the public thinks about GM's engineering and design.

But let's get back to new product. Continuing our quest for lousy cars, how about Saturn? They may last a long time, but is that a good thing? Most of these cars use plastic far cheaper than Mattel dinky-cars. They have underpowered engines, terrible interiors, weak suspensions, junk brakes and dismally uninspired interiors. And they're ugly. The media reports that GM will rectify all of these problems with a new batch of high-quality product. Now where have I heard THAT before?

While many cars in GM's line-up aren't lousy in and of themselves, they're clearly not "up" to the competition. The top-spec Saab 9-5 is a nice car, but so is a fully-loaded Nissan Altima, for $10k less. Or, for the same price as the Saab, how about a BMW 525? The Bimmer's retained value would even pay for a few extra toys. Buick's latest and greatest, the Lacrosse, or a Nissan Maxima? Guess which is cheaper, better styled in and out, has more power, better gearing, and still gets better fuel economy. Bottom line, in every situation, there's at least two or three compelling reasons to buy from GM's competition.

Witzenburg and his supporters like to point to the one supposed bright spot in GM's constellation: Cadillac. Although the CTS is a great car that builds on the Escalade's success/excess, Cadillac is hardly out of the woods. The XLR and STS are both perilously close to being flops: over-priced and under-deluxed. Again, check the sales charts; Caddy have yet to prove that they have what it takes to take-on Lexus, BMW, Mercedes, etc. and win. And again, cliff-face depreciation tells the tale of a division with more pretensions than product.

It's time for GM and its supporters to wake up. The only people giving them high numbers on surveys are those that don't know anything about cars, or what a decent car actually feels like to drive. When they do try a GM competitor's product, they usually don't come back. You can shout that GM makes great cars until you're blue in the face, but the there's no getting around the fact that people aren't buying them– any of them– like they used to. There's a lot of good reasons for that, and it isn't media propaganda. Until and unless GM builds great cars, like it or not, it's going to get exactly what it deserves.

Join the conversation
  • Jim Bonham Thanks.
  • Luke42 I just bought a 3-row Tesla Model Y.If Toyota made a similar vehicle, I would have bought that instead. I'm former Prius owner, and would have bought a Prius-like EV if it were available.Toyota hasn't tried to compete with the Model Y. GM made the Bolt EUV, and Ford made the Mach-E. Tesla beat them all fair and square, but Toyota didn't even try.[Shrug]
  • RHD Toyota is trying to hedge their bets, and have something for everyone. They also may be farther behind in developing electric vehicles than they care to admit. Japanese corporations sometimes come up with cutting-edge products, such as the Sony Walkman. Large corporations (and not just Japanese corporations) tend to be like GM, though - too many voices just don't get heard, to the long-term detriment of the entity.
  • Randy in rocklin The Japanese can be so smart and yet so dumb. I'm America-Japanese and they really can be dumb sometimes like their masking paranoia.
  • Bunkie The Flying Flea has a fascinating story and served, inadvertently, to broaden the understanding of aircraft design. The crash described in the article is only part of the tale.