General Motors Death Watch 21: Is Daihatso?
So, GM car Czar Bob Lutz breaks cover again. This time, Maximum Bob strolled into the offices of AutoWeek to face a grilling from the magazine's [unnamed] editor. Well, maybe not a grilling; more like a few minutes in a reasonably warm room with his coat off and feet up. In fact, the rambling and less-than-grammatical nature of Max Bob's replies to AutoWeek's underhand lobs indicates some kind of no-edit deal with the mag. Presumably, what we're getting is unvarnished Lutz. It's pretty scary stuff.
After a bit of warm-up softball, we get down to the main event: branding. In two of the longest, most 'puddle of consciousness' paragraphs ever posted on the web, Bob provides a guided tour of the magical mystery maze known as GM's branding strategy. [NB: Immediately after this editorial appeared, Autoweek removed its interview with Mr. Lutz from its website.] "I don't want to start a debate" the Editor begins, leading with his chin, "but how many divisions are adequate to cover the market?"
Max Bob immediately attacks GM's critics for double standards. Why accuse The General of excessive divisionality when Toyota has plenty of brands: Scion, Toyota, Lexus, Daihatsu and "I don't know what else"? Hmmm. Although Toyota bought Daihatsu in '99, the company's US operations died in February '92. In its quarantined capacity, Daihatsu isn't exactly a threat to GM's subs. And if Max Bob really doesn't know "what else" GM's arch rival has in its arsenal, well, that's not good– especially as there IS nothing else (excluding Hino commercial trucks and busses).
Adding insult to apathy, Bob goes on to list the VAG group's brands: "Volkswagen, Audi, Goldan, Bentley, Lamborghini, and I probably forgot one or two along the way." You can forgive Max Bob for forgetting Bugatti (as they've forgotten to deliver the Veyron), but you'd hope GM's Vice Chairman for Global Product Development would remember SEAT and SKODA. And who the Hell is Goldan? Maybe Maximum Bob said "Gol dang Bentley", and Autoweek's transcription service heard a more palatable (if imaginary) homonym.
When Max Bob finally turns his attention to his employer's lineup, he declares that Chevrolet is "the essential", Cadillac is "very clearly needed" and Hummer is "expandable". And then Bob's off, chasing cheese in the labyrinth, banging into dead ends at every turn. To wit: "When I say Pontiac should be more BMW, it should be into the niche of somewhat outrageous, aggressive performance. Will a Pontiac obtain a level of perfection of a 3-series? No. That's Pontiac's story."
I think I missed a few chapters. Perhaps Max Bob is trying to say that Pontiacs should be more like BMW's, but only somewhat, because Pontiac doesn't have a hope in Hell of matching BMW quality and engineering at its presumed price point. I'm not sure. In any case, Max Bob's remarks aren't exactly what I'd call a rallying cry.
On the Saturn front, Max Bob posits a philosophical question: "Why do we have to pick between great cars and lousy dealers and great dealers and uninspired cars? What would happen if we put the two together?" Excellent question, but why it applies to Saturn any more than any other of The General's seven other domestic brands is an even better one. Perhaps MB simply forgot about them. After revealing that Yukon-Denali buyers have more money than Escalade owners, Bob says, "So those are basically the brands now, what do we do with them?" Hello; what happened to SAAB?
We later learn that "Saab has a good future, but the part of the future that had to be changed was operating Saab as an independent car company. It just made absolutely no sense, so you've probably seen the announcement that we're establishing a Saab control center. It is sort of like the keepers of the Saab flame."
It's sort of like, you know, frightening; hearing Max Bob admit that GM brands can not act as independent car companies. For one thing, this Saab story makes a mockery of Marketing Mark LaNeve's pledge to eliminate product overlap (i.e. badge engineering) across the GM Empire. For another, genuine independence gives an automotive brand its character (hence GM's lack of same). When Lutz goes on to say that Saab has "never really been totally able to develop their own cars", he's either being disingenuous or pissing on Saab's heritage from a great height. Either way, it doesn't bode well for the Swedes.
In fact, MB's Autoweek appearance gives us no reason to revise our opinion of GM's prospects. Not that his words mean much; it's the next round of Lutzerific vehicles that will tell the tale. If they don't cut the mustard, if they can't be sold at a reasonable profit, The General will continue its inexorable slide into bankruptcy. At that point, Max Bob will regret his words, especially this classic example of hubristic doublespeak: "I don't think we have a lot of over-capacity. What we have is under-demand."
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