General Motors Death Watch 117: Wrong-Wheel Drive

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
general motors death watch 117 wrong wheel drive

"It was at the point where if you extrapolated that trend line out, you could see where that trend line hit the ground.” No, GM Car Czar “Maximum” Bob Lutz wasn’t referring to his employer or a bad flight in his L39 Albatros combat jet. Maximum Bob was reflecting on his infamous “damaged brand” assessment of Buick and Pontiac at the ’05 New York auto show. So how’s tricks? "They're still not where we'd like them to be,” Lutz told the Detroit Free Press, “but the vital signs have at least turned up.” In other words, they’ve gone from flatline to comatose. Nice one Bob.

In the last two years, GM has unleashed (if that’s the right word) a slew of models designed to defibrillate Buick and Pontiac. GM’s former “excitement” division unveiled the badge engineered Torrent SUV and G5 coupe, the Oprah-glorifying G6 (sedan, coupe and convertible) and the “My kingdom for a trunk” Pontiac Solstice. Buick attempted to find a pulse with the Lacrosse, Lucerne and Enclave.

When the Free Press pressed Lutz on the results of this product push, Lutz admitted that both brands have seen sales declines and trotted out GM’s excuse du jour: “cuts in rental fleet business.” Maximum Bob then insisted that Buick’s and Pontiac’s new models have helped both brands “gain traction.” Huh?

Once again, Lutz is flying blind. Comparing ’05 to ’06, Buick’s total production numbers sank 7.6 percent. In the same period, Pontiac production slipped 6.7 percent. In the first quarter of this year, Buick sales are down 30.3 percent. Pontiac’s first quarter sales have faltered 6.7 percent. If these brands are gaining traction, it’s in a distinctly backwards direction.

So, where do Buick and Pontiac go from here? Since he first assumed control over the GM Empire’s product plans, Maximum Bob has touted “fun to drive” rear-wheel drive cars as The Second Coming of General Motors. Although only one of Buick and Pontiac’s last seven models is RWD (the Solstice), each brand was due to receive a brand new RWD model– until Tuesday.

That’s the day The Chicago Tribune reported that GM has suspended development of its RWD automobiles. "We've pushed the pause button,” Maximum Bob told journos. “It's no longer full speed ahead." MB’s mixed metaphors highlight General Motors’ abject inability to stay ahead of the product curve, or, if you prefer, get its shit together.

Maximum Bob revealed that the decision to stick with front-wheel drive (FWD) vehicles stems from proposed federal legislation that would mandate a 30 percent increase in automotive fuel efficiency by 2017. According to Lutz, "We don't know how to get 30 percent better mileage from rear-wheel drive cars.” Which raises two questions: why not and this is news?

Instead of leaving it at that and heading home in his G5 (jet, not Pontiac), Maximum Bob trotted out the same old foot dragging arguments GM's used since the federal government first got in the CAFE business: consumer expense and "you're killing me!" Without citing any internal or external studies, Lutz claimed the new regs will cost GM an additional $5k per vehicle, which they’ll have to pass on to the consumer. This, of course, is a bad thing.

"Rather than buy new, people would hang onto their old cars,” Lutz warned. “We could eat the five thousand dollars, but that would put us out of business."

I won’t bother you with Maximum Bob’s ensuing remarks about CAFE credits and global warming, which were about as factually accurate and politically correct as Don Imus’ summation of the Rutgers women’s basketball team’s hairstyles and freelance income. Suffice it to say, Lutz said GM has postponed its final decision on whether or not to completely abandon RWD cars until the U.S. government legislates CO2 emissions and revises CAFE regulations.

The implications of Maximum Bob’s remarks beggar belief: the world’s largest automaker, a vast commercial enterprise that’s hemorrhaging both money and market share, is taking a “wait and see” approach to new product development. Privately, the new product line managers for Buick and Pontiac (and Chevrolet, Hummer, Saab, Saturn, Cadillac and GMC) must be shaking their heads in dismay, if not despair.

Now you could say that GM’s decision to kill– sorry “pause”– its RWD program is the right thing to do. You could also argue that continuing down the wrong road is almost as stupid as choosing the wrong road in the first place. And you’d almost be right.

The truth is GM’s Board of Bystanders pays the automaker’s executive leadership tens of millions of dollars to make, at most, five critical decisions per year. If their Car Czar got this one wrong– moving towards RWD “fun” over front-wheel drive frugality– what else have they screwed up? I could give you a list. For now, I’ll just say this: the worst is yet to come.

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  • 86er 86er on Apr 16, 2007
    Johnson: Notice I said “usable interior space”. By the numbers, the Impala has noticeably more interior room … but it considering the exterior size of the car, the Impala is less efficient at maximizing interior space compared to the Camry. For instance, the Camry has a near-flat rear floor, which provides a considerable “usable” gain in interior room, but does not factor into the numbers. Notice how I said that hip and shoulder room is the difference maker especially in the North American context. That's what I call "usable". I'm not arguing the Camry doesn't make more efficient use of its space based on wheelbase and overall length - I'm just saying the Impala has more where it counts.
  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Oct 15, 2007 I don't understand why GM doesn't stop complaining about the cost to import an Opel or a Holden and start building a few over here for us. Sell the Holdens lineup as Pontiac ONLY. Sell the Opels here as Saturn ONLY. Sell the remaining & existing NA product lineup as Chevys or Caddies or GMC. NO PRODUCT OVERLAP. Too many dealers screwing up the product mix by demanding a Pontiac equivalent to a successful Chevy? Let all of the GM dealers sell GM vehicles. The bad dealers will die off. The other ones will adjust and be successful. GM has some good product but they try too hard to sell all of us 'mericans SUVs and trucks. They build some nice ones but hear me GM: I will NEVER buy a new truck or SUV. If I think I'll want one for some ridiculous reason I'll buy a used one. What I DO wearout from time to time are small cars. This is what I want. A Golf or a Civic or an Accord. And I want one to last 200K miles without the headliner falling on my head, without multiple engines or transmissions, or the plastic stuff disintergrating. My VWs and Hondas have lasted and lasted without much more than maintenance. My friends and relatives generally have a pile of domestic junk in their driveway before then or they ditch them at 100K miles just like we did back in the 80s. Now maybe that is GM's fault, and maybe that is the fault of these vehicle owners who don't baby their vehicles enough but either way it does not inspire confidence in me. Maybe THAT is the problem of the domestics - maybe they are selling vehicles to the low quality customers who let their vehicles fall apart so that Honda drivers think that GM vehicles are junk... Hmmm.... How easy would it be for GM to amoritize the cost of a vehicle design worldwide? It's a Kadett sold around the globe (a Civic killer, not a LeMans heap) so the cost is spread across the globe. Small cars can once again be profitable... This way GM's best and brightest from around the globe can make suggestions and improvements. Sure they might need a few cosmetic alterations to appeal to the market the car is being sold in but generally the European Opels look better than their rare NA cousins in my opinion. Do like the imports and sell the plastic hubcap low performance version (LX) and a higher content version with the fancy stuff inside and out (the EX version). Near the end of the product cycle sell an EX-Limited since the product cost has been paid for and anything above the cost of materials and assembly is just profit... Let's see the domestics have given the small car market to the imports, the sport wagon/estate car market to the imports, the minivan market to the imports, the luxury and sport luxury cars to the imports, and nearly the convertible car market to the imports. What do they have left? Fullsized vans, SUVs, and pickups. Hmmm - I see now that Toyota and Nissan are making so big strides into the big truck and big SUV markets so what's the big 3 going to do then??? Die a slow death I suppose. Meanwhile they have a RWD muscle car division in Austrailia, they have a good compact and sporty car division in Europe, but they insist we don't want those cars or they are too expensive to bring here. So we should buy more SUVs as gas bounces between $3 and $2.50 a gallon. So could it be that GM/FoMoCo/ChryCo WANTS to die? I mean if they could make it look like a dozen bad decisions led to their downfall they could file bankruptcy (and not LOOK like they meant to) and shed the unions or lobby for changes to the state laws where they have factories that have union-shop laws (you know where a new employee MUST join the union in the land of the free)... Or MAYBE the unions and the management both are a bunch of idiots and another segment of American manufacturing will die.

  • Redapple2 I d just buy one already sorted. Too many high level skills (wiring, paint, body panel fitment et. al.) that i dont have. And I dont fancy working 100 s of hours for $3 /hour.
  • 28-Cars-Later I'm actually surprised at this and not sure what to make of it. In recent memory Senator Biden has completely ignored an ecological disaster in Ohio, and then ignored a tragic fire in Hawaii until his handlers were goaded in sending him and his visit turned into it's own disaster, but we skipped nap time for this sh!t show? Seriously? We really are through the looking glass now, "votes" no longer matter (Hillary almost won being the worst presidential candidate since 1984 before he claimed the crown) and outside of Corvette nostalgia Joe doesn't care let alone know what day it happens to be. Could they really be afraid of Trump, who AFAIK has planned no appearance or run his mouth on this issue? Just doesn't make sense, granted this is Clown World so maybe its my fault for trying to find sense in a senseless act.
  • Tassos If you only changed your series to the CORRECT "Possibly Collectible, NOT Daily Driver, NOT Used car of the day", it would sound much more accurate AND TRUTHFUL.Now who would collect THIS heap of trash for whatever misguided reason, nostalgia for a much worse automotive era or whatever, is another question.
  • ToolGuy Price dropped $500 overnight. (Wait 10 more days and you might get it for free?)
  • Slavuta Must be all planned. Increase price of cars, urbanize, 15 minutes cities. Be poor, eat bugs