General Motors Death Watch 115: Small is… Hang on… Thinking…

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

It’s déjà vu all over again. GM’s sales sink, the PR flacks weave a tangled web and the product guys dangle shiny objects in front of the easily distracted press to prevent them from focusing on the company’s ongoing, unstoppable rot. It’s got to the point where Buickman, the original tin foil hat guy, can’t be bothered to pen his usual protracted rant. All we get is three sentences, the first of which proclaims “Need anything more be said?” Well, yes actually. It’s time, once again, to talk about small cars.

It’s no revelation that GM is, was and will be ill-prepared for rising gas prices and increasing demand for smaller, high mileage vehicles. Back when they launched their “new” GMT900 based SUV’s, (and everyone else) pointed out that The General had arrived late to the high mileage ball dressed in an oversized clown suit.

That was over a year ago. By now, GM should be at least two years into a small car project (or five), getting ready to stun the market with a Fit-killer, a Versa adversary and a Yaris crusher. And?

And now Chevrolet is running an on-line competition where consumers can choose between three foreign-made mutant micro-cars: the Beat, Trax and Groove. You know, hypothetically. ‘Cause they’re concept cars.

For the next two years, consumers looking for GM’s mark of excellence on a high mileage vehicle are still left with a choice of fuel-gargling SUV’s and pickups, marginally less thirsty crossovers, a wide selection of anemic rental grade sedans, a couple of ergonomically challenged toys (a.k.a. roadsters) and a small range of joyless (if frugal) penalty boxes.

Remind me again: who’s surprised that GM’s March sales are off seven percent from last year, while Toyota’s climbed 11.7 percent, Honda grew by 11.3 percent and Nissan increased 7.8 percent? Well, no one really– save those misguided souls who think the inherently unprofitable (and anemic) Opel Astra will take the US market by storm.

Nope. The miscalculations of the past continue to haunt GM, arguably the least agile automaker on the face of planet earth.

This is the point where I usually trot out one of GM Car Czar Maximum Bob’s inane auto show pronouncements, illustrating the fact that GM is so far behind the curve they’d almost be better off waiting until motoring trends come full circle. Something like, "The real question is will we build these types of vehicles in the U.S.? Historically, these types of cars haven't done well here. But clearly, things are changing."

Normally, I’d segue into a statement about GM’s inability to catch up with the transplants’ constant evolution with timely, segment leading products. But I've discovered a far better example of The General's general cluelessness and temporal distortions, courtesy of GM’s vice president of global design.

"I think American, and [I think] big," pronounced Ed Welburn at this year's New York Auto Show. ”Big has been very much a part of America. The highways are wide, the parking lots are quite large, but the interest level is there for a smaller car…

“I think it is time, especially as people are looking for a unique offering, to be a very creative, or to at least look at a very creative offering in the small car category."

Ed is certainly a corporate survivor, but who knew he spent the last five years as a survivor on a desert island, away from the U.S. automotive marketplace? GM's going to “look" at the "possibility" of building a creative small car? As John McEnroe would say, YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!

He is. They are. Incredibly, a full year into an unstoppable downsizing trend amongst American car buyers, GM’s still “thinking” about the whole small car thing– while the transplants are busy gorging themselves on The General’s lunch.

Given the now familiar litany of lost sales and declining market share, this parlous state of affairs leaves GM PR flacks without a coherent story to tell. In other words, there’s spin to be spun.

“In March, we saw continued strength and stability in our retail business led by gains in mid-cars, crossovers, economy cars and luxury SUVs," said Mark LaNeve, vice president, GM North American Sales, Service and Marketing.

"The Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, Acadia and Saturn Outlook are exceeding our expectations and confirm that when you offer the best product, value, segment-leading fuel economy and the best warranty coverage in the industry, customers respond."

While we’re happy GM’s exceeding their own “expectations” (a meaningless measure if ever there was one), and we’ll defer to Frank Williams' monthly “By the Numbers” editorial to provide the obvious truth behind the hype (a few bright stars do not a universe make), suffice it to say LaNeve’s recipe is spot on. In fact, The General’s competition is using it right now to kick GM’s ass.

When will they ever learn? Never. They will never learn.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • Lokkii Lokkii on Apr 09, 2007

    What is Schizophrenia? Answer: GM's approach to small cars. Head 1: There is no profit in small cars. We shouldn't bother to make them - the money is in the big stuff. Head 2: Small cars are important because they bring people into the GM family, build brand loyality, and are popular during times of high gas prices. Head 3: Okay - then we will build small cars, but we will expend as few engineering and marketing resources as possible.

  • Nick Nick on Apr 09, 2007
    windswords: The method for deriving those figures is consistent across models. It is the mileage calculated using Canadian standards, converted to mpg.
  • Bd2 Oh yeah, funny how Trumpers (much less the Orange Con, himself) are perfectly willing to throw away the Constitution...
  • Bd2 Geeze, Anal sure likes to spread his drivelA huge problem was Fisher and his wife - who overspent when they were flush with cash and repeatedly did things ad hoc and didn't listen to their employees (who had more experience when it came to auto manufacturing, engineering, etc).
  • Tassos My Colleague Mike B bought one of these (the 300 SEL, same champagne color) new around June 1990. I thought he paid $50k originally but recently he told me it was $62k. At that time my Accord 1990 Coupe LX cost new, all included, $15k. So today the same car means $150k for the S class and $35k-40k for the Accord. So those %0 or 62k , these were NOT worthless, Idiot Joe Biden devalued dollars, so he paid AN ARM AND A LEG. And he babied the car, he really loved it, despite its very weak I6 engine with a mere 177 HP and 188 LBFT, and kept it forever. By the time he asked me to drive it (to take him to the dealer because his worthless POS Buick Rainier "SUV" needed expensive repairs (yes, it was a cheap Buick but he had to shell out thousands), the car needed a lot of suspension work, it drove like an awful clunker. He ended up donating it after 30 years or so. THIS POS is no different, and much older. Its CHEAPSKATE owner should ALSO donate it to charity instead of trying to make a few measly bucks off its CARCASS. Pathetic!
  • RHD The re-paint looks like it was done with a four-inch paintbrush. As far as VWs go, it's a rebadged Seat... which is still kind of a VW, made in Mexico from a Complete Knock-Down kit. 28 years in Mexico being driven like a flogged mule while wearing that ridiculous rear spoiler is a tough life, but it has actually survived... It's unique (to us), weird, funky (very funky), and certainly not worth over five grand plus the headaches of trying to get it across the border and registered at the local DMV.
  • Kat Laneaux I get the point that Musk is making. I wouldn't want everyone to know my secrets. If they did, they could or would shout it out to the world. But then, if Musk certified certain folks and had them sign Confidentiality agreements, which would allow them to work on cars that Musk had made, that could allow others to work on his cars and not confine vehicle owners to be charged an arm and a leg for the service. It's a catch 22. People are greedy little buggers. If they can find a way to make money, they will even if it wrong. People...sad.