General Motors Death Watch 20: Hybrid Hell

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
general motors death watch 20 hybrid hell

Opening up a recent issue of Autoweek, I was astonished by a picture of a new SUV. The vehicle's design was clean, modern and butch, without the slightest hint of off-roader clichés or overarching futurism. The newbie's sheet metal instantly trumped the latest crop of SUV's: the hideously-nosed Subaru Tribeca, the narcoleptic Saab 9-7x and the ungainly Audi Q7. I was even more astonished to see the GMC logo on the stunner's snout. When I saw the words "Hybrid Fever" in the title, I was ready for a big plate of humble pie.

The GMC Graphyte is, I soon learned, a concept car; though not in the Chrysler sense of the phrase. It's not an SUV that will eventually appear at your local dealership in roughly the same form. It's more like "here's something we spent a lot of money on to distract you from the fact that our next generation of trucks is just like the current generation of trucks with slightly better everything, but nothing particularly interesting, and certainly no killer ap like a really good hybrid engine." In other words, if you think GM has a secret weapon waiting in the wings to counter Toyota's inexorable march towards replacing The General as the world's largest automaker, dream on.

In fact, Autoweek let slip that the Graphyte is a sham. The demo SUV was powered by the same old GM iron– despite the plastic cover proclaiming it a hybrid. "We later learned that actual prototypes are out in the real world doing engineering tests…" So no one at GM told Autoweek that the demo SUV had a gas-guzzling V8 until AFTER they drove it? You couldn't ask for a better illustration of the dishonest desperation infesting The General's ranks.

By the same token, Autoweek brings no glory to itself for saving that crucial factoid for paragraph ten, and accepting GM's contention that the engine in question even exists. The truth's late entry into the game can be attributed to the length of the author's pro-GM intro. After accusing hybrid supporters of Stalinist tendencies, the writer reveals that "insiders at GM… admit to not appreciating the emotional appeal of the segment" and "GM expects to become a major player in the model years 2007 and 2008." Translation: GM didn't make hybrids because they didn't realize its customers are such PC morons, but now they do."

Heads-up guys! Since when is a car NOT an emotional purchase? Are we to believe GM's product planners are in tune with the emotional appeal of a gas-guzzling Cadillac Escalade, but couldn't get their heads 'round the idea that consumers are willing to pay a premium to do their bit for America's energy independence and the environment– even if their assistance is only marginal? And again, where's the hard evidence that GM's "next generation" (read: late but superior) hybrid technology is ready for MY '07 or '08? If the powerplant ain't in the Graphyte right now, what are the chances it'll be market-ready in just two years?

To its credit, Autoweek understands the reasoning behind GM's continuing reluctance to fully commit to hybrid technology. The magazine repeats the anti-hybrid argument I've heard coming from The General's command post for some time: hybrids are merely halo cars, media-friendly anomalies that burnish a carmaker's green rep but have little appeal to the majority of American car buyers. Autoweek cites an oft-quoted JD Power survey predicting that hybrid-powered vehicles will carve-out a 3% market share by 2012. So it's just not worth it.

Older readers may remember similar arguments when Japanese imports first arrived on US shores. "Nobody wants those small, cheap cars except a few pot-smoking liberals and poor people.' Well, it didn't turn out that way– especially after the Arab oil embargo changed the rules of the game. This time, GM has failed to recognize that 911 has triggered another sea-change. More and more US consumers want hybrids, and they want them NOW.

Check this: GM just released a study revealing that 39% of Americans believe that improving gas mileage and reducing vehicle emissions should be our top energy priority. Does that sound like a hybrid market to you? GM's response: the poll shows the need to tell the public about our work developing fuel-efficient vehicles and our research into vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Wrong answer. Graphyte mock-up or no, GM needs to realize that the time for talking is through.

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 1 comment
  • Sherman Lin Sherman Lin on Apr 15, 2007

    Now its 2007 and still no hybrid SUVs. The new GM SUV also look like crap in comparison to these concepts. Many in detroit still seem oblivious.

  • Dawn Maple They haven't even fixed the airbag issues and recalls completely, so why waste more time and money on another "safety feature" that removes choices from the driver? We would be safer getting in a car driven by Helen Keller. Oh wait with driver assist, all she has to do is find her car and turn it on.
  • Lorenzo I'm out. I'd never find it in the dark.
  • VoGhost Minivans don't sell well, and the market has been declining. And while the entire 'range anxiety' myth is mostly a big oil propaganda designed to scare the weak minded, minivans are often how families travel to grandma's house, so that will be a concern, unless VW can gain access to the Supercharger network. I could see 50K units at peak, declining to 25K/year after a couple of years, unless VW can price competitively with Tesla.
  • VoGhost Glad you're healthy, Tim
  • VoGhost 20 years ago, Sportage was the bottom of the barrel, a joke. Kia's come a long way.