General Motors Death Watch 20: Hybrid Hell

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

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.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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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.

  • Scott Miata for the win.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X On a list of things to spend my time and money on, doing an EV conversion on a used car is about ten millionth.
  • TheEndlessEnigma No, no I would/will not.
  • ChristianWimmer If I want an EV then I’ll buy an EV. For city use a small EV with a 200-300 km range (aka “should last for a week with A/C or heater usage”) is ideal. But I only have space for one daily driver and that daily driver also needs to be capable of comfortable long-distance cruising at high speeds and no current EV can do this without rapidly draining its battery charge.
  • SCE to AUX I prefer original, no matter what the car is. If the car has some value, then an electric drivetrain lowers its value. But if it's just a used car, why spend a fortune to install an electric drivetrain?