General Motors Death Watch 110: Will Opelization Save Saturn From GM's Black Hole?
Our first car was a navy blue Opel Kadett. My father was off to sea; my mother took us on an inaugural daytrip. When my father returned to the Norwegian mainland, he dismissed the car as too small and upgraded to an Opel Kapitän. This was followed at short intervals by an Opel Rekord and an Opel Admiral. (The hierarchical naming scheme of Opel marketing in the 60s-70s was pretty obvious.) I’m sure my father would have moved to a Senator with time– but he was ready for a Mercedes. Once he’d switched allegiances, he never looked back.
They were good cars, the Opels, but they were also ”’tweeners”: the brand you bought until you made enough money to move on to something better. Then as now, Teutonic carmakers offer such a wealth of quality choices that it’s hard for Opel to stand out. For the last two decades it’s been the ”we’re here too” brand: a low to middle market alternative to higher-priced, better-regarded imports and homegrown ”names;” roughly akin to Chevrolet’s current position in the U.S.
And now GM has decided to populate its ailing Saturn brand with Opels, both platform derivatives (Aura) and outright imports (Astra). The American brand born as GM’s ”import fighter” is down to relying on imported European design, technology and production for its salvation.
The irony is delicious, the choice of donor inauspicious. Although Opel is currently undergoing an extensive product redevelopment program, the Euro-brand’s tweener mainstream products are a stretch as pinch hitters for a quirky niche player.
It’s hard to tell what GM has on its mind these days. They’re building Opel-platformed Saturns, Vauxhalls, Holdens, Chevrolets and Saabs (designed in Germany, sometimes rejigged and rebadged as Cadillacs). While platform sharing and international parts commonality shouldn’t be an impediment to shrewd, sustainable and distinctive branding, you wouldn’t think it from looking at the products coming from GM’s mashup of mid-market models. Can Saturn carve out a name for itself deploying generic German motors? Not likely.
There’s a Black Hole hovering over RenCen. This irresistible vortex devours any automotive brand with a definable identity, pulls it through the Event Horizon, and spits it back out again, bland and denuded. Every brand-specific selling point and distinguishing feature is lost, replaced by variations on the badge slapped to the hoods of identical look-and-feel automobiles. Saturn disappeared into that time – space distortion a long time ago. The new Aura may be a great car, but it’s not a great Saturn.
Hang on; what’s one of them, then? No one’s really sure anymore.
That such a fate should befall Saturn is tragic. Like Lexus, the brand was born an empty slate. Within a few short years, Saturn’s plastic-panelled vehicles, no-haggle pricing and customer-focused dealers built an intensely loyal following. While Pontiac stopped building excitement, Cadillac disappeared into a fug of mediocrity and Oldsmobile vanished, Saturn buyers stood by their brand. They knew they were a different kind of customer for a different kind of company.
This description once applied to Saab buyers. Talk about bad karma; The General bought the brand about the same time they started Saturn. As the import fighter found its inner quirk, the quirky Swedish brand born of fighters was stripped of its mojo. The General tried to turn Saab into a cut-price luxury marque (!), alienating the brand’s core customers. At the same time, GM’s mandarins gradually starved Saturn of product and marketing resources, until the brand’s soul was gone.
Which leaves GM with not one but two formerly distinctive brands that have lost their direction. The General is now talking about brand distinction, even as it begins badge-engineering on a global basis.
Too late. If GM had begun nurturing its divisions’ branding when it mattered, back in the late ’80’s, it would now have a lineup of companies serving a palette of consumer needs. Instead it has a vortex of brands pretending to be different, stacked up in the middle of each segment.
Saturn sits in a particularly tepid part of the goulash. Back when they began, Saturn dealers’ honesty, stress-free service and customer focus was a big deal. In these post-Lexus days of customer CSI’s and J.D. Power ratings, when Saturn hasn’t sold itself as the car customer’s best friend for over a decade, the brand’s [unstated] promise of warm fuzzies is no big thing. When they ditched plastic panels, product differentiation died. Which left Saturn with… nothing.
Take it from someone who’s grown up around Opels, Opelization will not save Saturn. Opel has no glamor to bestow upon Saturn; its geist is middle-of-the-road. This, of course, will not prevent The General from throwing its reserves at another researched-to-death brand melée. But Saturn’s customers have already moved on, as my father did with his Opels. And they’re not looking back.
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