General Motors Death Watch 151: Maximum Bob's Keepin' It Real

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

Bob Lutz is a gift. The Car Czar’s uncanny ability to spout uninformed, arrogant nonsense makes analyzing GM’s corporate confusion a slam dunk. Unfortunately, the mainstream automotive press prefers to proffer a protest-free platform for Maximum Bob’s maximum BS. So be it. We can still read between the lines. In this case, Automotive News [AN] blesses us with a bit of Maximum Bob raw. It’s deeply worrying stuff.

AN begins by asking Lutz how the new Malibu can overcome its rep as a daily rental car.

A lot of the advertising is designed to take that head-on. We're not going to erase that perception gap in this generation. People are still going to go to the Toyota store and are still going to get a Camry. They're not going to care that most of the models are no longer recommended, and they're not going to care about all the quality problems. It's a learned response. That's going to be hard to erase.

Lutz begins by feigning glasnost: we here at GM are not afraid to take on previous reputation with brand new most excellent automobile. And then Lutz commits marketing’s cardinal sin: insulting the customer. If you don’t consider the “perception gap” an inherently demeaning concept– our cars are as good/better as theirs; you’re just too stupid/bigoted to know it– Bob’s no-holds-barred attack on Camry buyers’ loyalty should convince you.

Earth to Bob: don’t diss the customers you can’t afford to miss. And is it me or does Bob’s idea of “erasing” Camry buyers’ “learned responses” sound way too 1984 for a car guy plying his trade in a free market? As he has so many times before, Bob seals the deal with outright ignorance; Consumer Reports dropped one of Camry’s three models from its thumbs-up list (the V6). “Most” Camry models remain recommended.

So, Bob, what will happen to GM's recovery if sales of the car you've touted as the Camry-killer misses its mark?

It's not a make-or-break car. We expect it to do moderately well, and we expect it to be recognized by the media as one of the best mid-sized cars out there. We expect that not all but some import intenders will come back to this car or try it for the first time.

Huh? if the new Malibu is not GM’s make-or-break car, what is? Is this the same Malibu that Maximum Bob told Edmunds that "in terms of fits and finishes, gaps, interior quality and so forth, you’re going to find the Malibu is equal to, I think, the Camry. And with the V6 engine, it outperforms it and I think it outhandles it. It also outbrakes it. I believe personally, subjectively, that it’s more fun to drive. And we do have a price advantage”? Now it's "one of the best" that will do "moderately well?"

Has Maximum Bob run out of hot air gas? AN picks-up the bad vibe (so to speak) and runs with it. What's it gonna take to make GM profitable in North America?

We've made a major move with the labor agreement. What still remains to be done is getting better net pricing or better transaction prices on the cars, which means lower incentives. But the environment is pretty difficult right now because I think we're facing an increasingly weak market. The market has to come back a little bit.

Part A of Bob’s reply is boilerplate bluster. Part B is completely out of character for Maximum Bob. We know what we need to do but we can’t do it because the market sucks. We’re going to keep our heads down and wait.

Coming from GM's CFO after yet more market share decline, the statement wouldn't merit a second listen. Coming from GM’s Vice Chairman of Global Product Development, this wiggle room makeover is a shocking Volt from the blue. If Maximum Bob’s no longer GM’s dopey-headed cheerleader, what the Hell’s going on down there?

To cheer him up, AN asks Bob if the Chevy's hybrid Hail Mary is a goer. Bob reckons it's an ipso facto-mobile; if the Volt wasn’t doable, why would GM even try? (Note to Bob: you’re got 400 engineers on the job, not 200.) And yet…

So is there a possibility next spring when we have our first cars and we drive them, the batteries don't live up to our expectation or they don't accept the charge as quickly as we'd like or they don't deliver quite the range; they deliver 35 instead of 40 miles? That is a possibility. Right now, we don't think that will happen. Even if it does happen, it's an engineering problem that we will solve through further development.

Further development. It’s what GM does best! Just look at the… the…. In any case, it seems clear to this industry watcher that someone or something has knocked the wind out of Maximum Bob’s sails. Could it be reality? Jim Farley-esque really real reality? Stranger things have happened. Wait. No they haven’t. Expect Bob to return to form and/or– as we have been predicting for quite some time– a shit storm of epic proportions.

[The Automotive News interview with MB is available (by subscription) here.]

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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2 of 35 comments
  • Kjc117 Kjc117 on Nov 23, 2007

    Bob "the mouth" Lutz more like it. GM only cares about making a profit! They don't care about their customers or the product.

  • Martin Albright Martin Albright on Nov 23, 2007

    From the article:

    "...I believe personally, subjectively, that it’s more fun to drive. And we do have a price advantage" (emphasis added.) Nice, very nice. It is exactly this mentality that is killing Detroit. Like I said in my first TTAC article, GMs motto might as well be "GM: When you can't afford anything better." Even if that's not the official motto, based on Bob's quote above it seems to be the unofficial attitude of all the Detroit 3. Not "buy our cars because they are the best", but "buy our cars because they're almost as good and anyway, they're real cheap." What is baffling to me is that the marketing people, who have budgets in the millions, can't seem to understand what's wrong with this sales pitch. Buyers will willingly pay $3000-$5000 more for a similarly equipped Toyota or Honda because they perceive that they are getting more for their money. Detroit can't seem to break out of their downward spiral even with a significant price advantage, so why do they think that touting the price advantage is a winning strategy for them?
  • Lorenzo All the efforts made over decades to reduce/eliminate NVH in ICE cars, and now they're putting noise and vibration into electric cars. It reminds me of efforts to make veggie burgers taste like meat. Vegetarians don't want the taste of meat, and meat eaters will want meat, not veggie burgers.
  • Jalop1991 A true golf cart.Sure, it's a penalty box inside. But you're not in it for more than a few minutes at a time during commutes and in between charging stops.Ergo, it's the cart.
  • Zipper69 I'm sure it will sell just fine at all trim levels.I'd only note that IMHO the dashboard is a bit of a busy mess.
  • MaintenanceCosts Why do you have to accept two fewer cylinders in your gas engine to get an electric motor? (This question also applies to the CX-90.)
  • Zipper69 Do they have unique technology that might interest another manufacturer?