GM Death Watch 74: The Refresh That Pauses

gm death watch 74 the refresh that pauses

Last year, GM unveiled a funky retro-styled vanlet called the HHR (Heritage High Roof). Although the HHR has generated some much-needed action on Chevrolet dealers' lots, the vehicle's character and genesis is an ominous sign that all is not well within GM's product development process. For one thing, the HHR is a bin-engineered clone of its competitor, the PT Cruiser, designed by the same man who penned the Chrysler. For another, there was a five-year gap between the PT and the Me-Too. In other words, when it comes to creating products for the US market, General Motors is dim, cheap and slow.

To be fair, GM's current vehicles are generally 80 to 90% as good as the class-leading benchmarks. TTAC readers might not choose a Pontiac Torrent over a Honda CR-V, but there's nothing wrong with the Pontiac that automatically disqualifies it from consideration. Right now, that is. A few years down the road, things start to get ugly. When it's time to update a product– not just adding new options and colors, making significant mechanical and cosmetic improvements– GM has been known to let a new vehicle slip seven years or longer between refreshes. In contrast, The General's foreign competition is fully committed to a five or six-year product cycle. As a result, GM's products are falling further and further behind, until they become obsolete. For example…

GM introduced its first J-car, the Chevrolet Cavalier, in March 1981. Eight years later, the Cavalier and its platform-sharing partners (Firenza, Skyhawk, Sunbird, etc.) received curvier styling and some mild mechanical tweaks. Meanwhile, the competition moved in. The third AND fourth generation Honda Civic beat the J-cars first redesign by a year. Six years after that, GM finally unleashed a J-car update. The following year, the sixth generation Civic arrived. Even with a year's head start, GM had managed to put out just two redesigns against Honda's five. Fleet sales and other discounts soon damaged the J-cars so badly GM abandoned the entire model-range. The new Cobalt enjoyed just one year's grace before another new Civic blew it into the weeds.

The story of GM's minivans is even more depressing. GM entered the market in the late 80s with an innovative design (pre-Saturn plastic panels) and fancy Italian styling. Unfortunately, the four-cylinder engines made their vehicles slow, the design made them weird (dust buster) and the architecture was too narrow. Five years after introduction, GM finally ditched the plastic panels and funky nose, and fitted a better engine. Seven years passed before GM's next "update": a literal nose job, without any significant engineering improvements. Buick and Saturn were added to the fold, offering GM customers four variations on a narrow minivan with ten-year-old mechanicals.

Before GM's first minivan update, Chrysler "jelly-beaned" their people mover and added another door. Once again, Chrysler's product began to dominate the sector. Between the later two GM updates, Honda introduced, and then updated, their superb Odyssey. Honda scooped the cream of the segment from Chrysler, Chrysler was forced down market and GM was relegated to the fringes. More instructively, Toyota arrived on the scene in 1990, flopped spectacularly, tried again after eight years with an all-new vehicle (the Sienna), tried again after five years of minor success (with another total redesign) and then, finally, gained traction in this highly-profitable segment.

Toyota's tenacity highlights another problem with GM's product updates. Unless a vehicle is very successful or very unsuccessful, The General tends to hold off on expensive redesigns. With GM's [overly] extensive distribution chain, an "adequate" vehicle can sell for years. Unfortunately, these ageing vehicles aren't very profitable. Equally important, the non-competitive products are highly unlikely to tempt their competitors' customers, denying GM the conquest sales they need to gain– or maintain– vital market share.

GM's updates also tend to be far less comprehensive than their competitors'. They'll change the shell and maybe the engine (usually for another old pushrod). Remember: an 80% refresh of an 80% car creates a car that's only 64% as good as its more advanced alternative. By contrast, Toyota and Honda are ready, willing and able to change anything up to and including an entire vehicle platform– and still manage to beat GM's update by one or two model cycles. The end result of GM's lethargy is a car in need of a complete re-build (and usually a new name).

Designing and improving cars is hugely expensive. Given The General's current cash crunch, there must be enormous pressure for product developers to cut corners wherever possible. As it is, the endless procession of eighty percent vehicles and too-late refreshes is sending GM's market share into terminal decline. Remember that the Chevrolet Cobalt and the Saturn Relay were designed when GM was flush. Imagine what will happen if they have to skimp.

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  • BTEFan BTEFan on Aug 17, 2006

    Just to clarify - The Dustbuster Minivans came to market with a 3.1 V6 with Throttle Body Fuel Injection and 120 hp, when most of the others were offering 140hp or more. They could have put a 3.8 165hp in it, but they didn't. The Toyota Previa van didn't sell in the huge numbers that the Chrysler Vans did, but the folks that did were diehard fans, especially those that got the All Trac or 4wd versions. They only let them go when Toyota brought out an AWD Sienna in 2004. The Uplander/Montana SV6/Relay/Terraza were the most half a$$ed thing to come out of GM. Why oh why would anyone want it!

  • Sherman Lin Sherman Lin on Mar 09, 2008

    This deathwatch chapter is not only true but should be revisted when the new malibu stays unimproved after a few years.

  • Matt Posky A lot of dune buggies aren't street legal and plenty that are aren't really fit for any kind of sustained highway driving.Unless you live in a state where it's pretty much wide open for vehicle mods and the cops don't care how wild your ride looks, you're probably towing it to its play space. While the Manx should be street legal and capable of making it to the dunes without outside help -- arguably part of its appeal vs other options -- it's hard to assume a majority of owners won't still opt to drag it behind their pickup or SUV.
  • Pmirp1 That is one more color than they have added to Grand Cherokee or Grand Cherokee L in three years. White, Grey, Silver, Black and a dark boring red. No Blues. No Forest Greens. No Beige. It is as though Jeep forgets they own the green SUV market and yet they refuse to give us any rich colors.
  • Golden2husky Customers should simply not buy this with such stupid markups. But since this is a "limited edition" model there will be those stupid enough to pay it. I walked away from a Supra for my wife because the dealer wanted a $20K markup on a $54K car...this Before the pandemic. Screw that. I worked way too hard for my money to throw it away. If I'm going to give my money away there are plenty of causes I support and dealers ain't one of them...
  • Arthur Dailey In the current market many are willing to pay 'extra' to get a vehicle that may be 'in stock'/on the lot. An acquaintance recently had his nearly new vehicle stolen. His choices were rather limited a) Put a deposit down on a new vehicle and wait 4 to 6 months for it to be delivered. And his insurance company was only willing to pay for a rental for 1 month and at far less than current rental costs. b) Purchase a used vehicle, which currently are selling for inflated prices, meaning that for the same vehicle as the stolen one he would need to pay slightly more than what he paid for his 'new' one. c) Take whatever was available in-stock. And pay MSRP, plus freight, etc and whatever dealer add-ons were required/demanded.
  • SCE to AUX I like it, but I don't know how people actually use dune buggies. Do you tow them to the dunes, then drive around? Or do you live close enough that the law winks as you scoot 10 miles on public roads to the beach?As for fast charging - I doubt that's necessary. I can't imagine bouncing around for hours on end, and then wanting a refill to keep doing that for a few more hours in the same day. Do people really run these all day?A Level 2 charger could probably refill the 40 kWh version in 6 hours if it was 80% empty.