General Motors Death Watch 133: Saturnalia, American-style

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
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general motors death watch 133 saturnalia american style

As GM tosses the last pieces of furniture into the cash conflagration burning down their house, you are going to see some seriously weird shit. Saturn’s new tagline is the most recent anomaly from the End of Days department: “Rethink American.” Given that the new Saturn Astra will be built in Belgium and the new Saturn Vue will be built in Mexico, you’ve got to wonder what bright spark (no concept car intended) OK’ed an ad campaign based on post-modern irony. Oh wait; they’re serious. They want customers to equate Saturn's Opelized lineup with American patriotism. How bizarre is that?

Rivet counting readers know that Chevy’s tagline– “An American revolution”– ignored a Korean-made car in that brand’s stable. And a Canadian Impala. And a Mexican Avalanche, Silverado, Suburban and HHR. They might also be aware that every car in Saturn’s new lineup will soon be based on European Opel designs– save the Outlook and Sky, which both entered Saturn’s orbit via the time-honored GM tradition of badge engineering.

Business-oriented readers might wonder why Saturn would play the American card when the corporate mothership has staked its future on “world cars” built on shared platforms. Or how an ad agency named Deutsch (which is German for “German”) figured that a Saturn ad campaign appealing to American patriotism would work when Chevy’s “My Country” ad campaign did sweet FA for the Silverado.

If you’re not a member of either camp, how about this: Dan Keller, Saturn’s marketing director since January, explained his brand’s new approach by claiming Saturn was free to re-invent itself. Why? “We don't have all the baggage the domestic car companies have.” So the marketing director responsible for an American-themed re-branding campaign forgot that Saturn is a division of the largest car company in the U.S.? Weird.

In fact, the division GM CEO Roger Smith Saturn founded to be GM’s “import fighter” is now using imports to fight cars built by foreign-owned companies in the United States. Go figure.

Meanwhile, as I said, GM is throwing pieces of its [former] American Empire on its own funeral pyre. The General is now looking to sell its medium-duty truck unit to truck and engine maker Navistar International Corp. The news comes hot on the heels of the revelation they’re trying to unload Allison Transmissions.

While medium trucks are a relatively small business for GM (last year they sold 59k vehicles under various nameplates), Allison is a large and thriving concern. The division currently adds about $500m cash flow to The General’s coffers. And yet GM wants to unload the company for about $3b. Wants or needs? While the spinmeisters talk about “focus,” we’re keeping an eye on the cash.

As, no doubt, are the private equity vultures who’ve been circling GM for some time. And now that Cerberus has thrown open the factory gates of Hell over at Chrysler, it’s only a matter of time before someone, somewhere figures out a way to extract financial value from GM by carving it into pieces. You don’t have to be a frustrated Corvette intender or a Hummertainment Center owner to know that there are significant bits of GM with latent value– if only someone could sever the bureaucratic umbilical cord.

Truth to tell, even Saturn would be better off on its own. Rethink American? What the Hell’s wrong with American? And what the Hell was wrong with Saturn? Not so long ago, Saturn built an innovative, home-grown product (with union labor). The brand offered no haggle pricing and delivered an unparalleled dealer experience. Saturn had some of the highest customer loyalty in the history of car retailing ever. From the git-go, Saturn was a hit. And then GM killed it.

Through neglect, indifference and in-fighting, GM murdered Saturn’s product line and disbanded their design team. They even took away Saturn’s corporate offices. GM’s “different kind of car company” became the same old “nothing very special but here we are, still nice people, still selling cars, if only just.”

Yes, you’ve gotta credit GM’s Car Czar and Co. for switching Saturn’s product lineup from famine to feast. But stuffing a bunch of products (however excellent) into Saturn showrooms without having a coherent, unifying reason for them being there won’t resuscitate the brand. In a hyper-competitive market, you need more than a few good products. You need a raison d’etre.

In fact, it’s painfully clear that GM’s overpaid execs don’t have a clue about branding. Not one. They don’t understand that all brands are built on trust: a promised fulfilled. Spinning tales about your product that are patently or even subtly false breaks the brand’s promise. At that point, you’re done. At that point, it’s time to sell all your worldly goods and disappear. Which is exactly what GM is doing.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • BostonTeaParty BostonTeaParty on May 22, 2007

    its only an opinion but the saturn product for me still stands out, theres nothing out there like it. Theres something about the european style that just looks so much better than the american stuff on the roads. Wheteher its a question of taste and culture i dont know, but compare the US civic to the European version and to me the european stands head and shoulders above its american counterpart. Theres just something so bland about american product from ALL companies at the moment. I can't wait for the Astra to arrive, if it means that a little euro flavour helps shake the scene up so be it.

  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Jan 02, 2008

    I don't understand why the car makers don't fight for a unified vehicle standard for Europe and America. Unified pollution standards and unified safety standards. It would save them huge money to be able to build a car here or there as needed and the consumers would get whatever they wanted - big or small (ME). I drove ALOT of Opels, Renaults, Fords, Peugeot's, VWs, etc in Italy when I lived there. A person had ALOT more options to choose from. I'd choose a 1.4L hatchback with crank up windows from Opel or VW. I don't need the speed, and I don't want the luxury add-ons, and I won't spend the money for an expensive vehicle. Am selling my '97 VW Cabrio and moving BACKWARDS to my 40+ year old Beetle. Short commute on slow streets so I'm safe enough - safer than on my motorcycle anyhow...

  • Parkave231 I'd rather they remember how to manufacture the things they have before adding more trims and options.
  • SCE to AUX "as if 775 lb-ft of torque in a pickup isn’t enough"Exactly. How about doing something hard instead, like getting your electric truck to meet 'truck' expectations first? That would sell better than a Raptor-like truck.
  • Akear They sell only 20,000 Mustang EVs a year. They better keep the current Mustang!
  • Jkross22 We're thinking about the 500e all wrong. This is a 'new' old car. All of the tooling and R&D is done. Easy way to move an 'Italian' car up market and boost fleet MPG. Plus... dealers can move all unsold models into demo/fleet usage so when Jeep and Durango owners come in for service, they can use this as a loaner.
  • Namesakeone Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. A light truck coming from Ford. We have never seen anything like it. (This is me trying to sound like I'm excited.)