General Motors Death Watch 59: X Marks the Spot
Yesterday, The Detroit News caught-up with Maximum Bob Lutz at the Geneva Auto Show. GM's Car Czar was busy unveiling Saab's Aero-X, a Corvette-based concept car from a brand that's lost GM several billion dollars over 17 years. It probably seemed as good a time as any to ask Maxi Bob about GM Board of Directors' member Jerry York's call to axe the Swedish brand. 'I've spoken at length with Jerry York,' Lutz said. 'And he's off this get-rid-of-Saab thing.' Thing? Calling the Turnaround King's strategic recommendation a "thing" is so condescending it qualifies Lutz for a British knighthood. More importantly, Maximum Bob's summary dismissal tells you all you need to know about Saab's future, and it ain't good.
Lutz' alternative to York's Saabicide is badge engineering. Or, more specifically, MORE badge engineering. Yes, now that The General has sold off its share in Subaru, the plan to transform Japanese Scoobies into Swedish Saabs has been ditched in favor of turning German Opels into Swedish Saabs (with an Ohio SUV thrown in for good measure). In other words, GM is fully committed to integrating the Saab brand into the bureaucratic clusterfuck known as GM's "global vehicle development system." Saab's ignition key slot will remain in between the front seats, but the decisions about its major components will now be taken somewhere a long way away from Sweden. And the choices will be made by a series of committees with far greater responsibilities than "just" Saab.
Never mind that GM Marketing Maven Mark LeNeve recently swore on a stack of Solstii that GM would no longer slap a badge on a standardized GM product and call it a Pontiac Torrent (oops). Don't confuse Maximum Bob with the company line; the man's talking about returning Saab to profitability by lowering the division's cost per unit. 'Soon.' Anyway, as the Saab faithful will tell you, it's too late to worry about the brand's identity; the Opel Vectra-based Saabs drive remarkably like… Opel Vectras. If you still cling to the belief that this platform sharing arrangement serves the greater glory of Saab, or, alternatively, justifies its destruction, Maximum Bob's happy to dispel either proposition. 'Saab is no longer an independent company that you could sell off as a unit.'
Now there's a bit of auto industry theater for you: Bob Lutz proudly admitting that GM has killed its Swedish goose before it could lay a single golden egg. Yes, proudly. As far as Maximum Bob is concerned, the de-Saabing of Saab is not only desirable, it's overdue. 'We left it independent way too long. Three years ago, Saab had its own capital budget. They ran the business as if it didn't belong to General Motors. Now, it's totally blended into the worldwide architecture plan.' Saab has its own budget? Who the Hell do these Swedish guys think they are, a car company? We've got a business to run here, Sven.
If you want to know why GM makes such a broad range of substandard products, why they can't or won't build a truly magnificent Saab, there's your answer: centralized power and control. The ends of the The General's vast Empire constantly fight against the center– and lose. Can you imagine the difficulty Saab has– I mean would have had– sourcing a seat bracket? Can you imagine the difficulties they would face if they tried to make a NEW seat bracket? Theoretically, the GM corporate mothership helps each brand achieve its goals. In practice, The General's overarching bureaucracy sucks the life force out of everything it touches, until all its vehicles are as bland and lifeless as a Pontiac G6.
The opposite of corporate synergy is… GM. The "global architecture" that makes Lutz' heart beat that little bit faster was designed by the company, for the company. Putting as many models as possible on the same platform using the same bits will reduce each brand's unit costs, but it won't enhance each brand's character or the consumer's pleasure. In fact, Saab never stood a chance against the legions of GM pencil pushers, bean counters and union reps: people who couldn't care less if a Saab looks, feels and drives like an Opel as long as its sales, marketing and production don't violate GM's corporate practices.
All of which makes the Aero-X concept a fitting memorial for Saab: a striking vehicle whose beauty and imagination will never see the light of day. Oh sure, Lutz dutifully mouthed the usual crap about incorporating the X' "design cues" into Saab's lineup, but it's hard (not to say nauseating) to imagine GM adding the X' aeronautic themes to Saab's rebadged Trailblazer. The Aero X is physical proof that "crisis what crisis?" GM is happy to celebrate its corporate diversity– even as it grinds its divisions, and itself, into the dust.
[UPDATE: After receiving an email from Jerry York, Maximum Bob Lutz has publicly retracted his contention that the GM Board member favors the continuation of the Saab brand.]
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