Editorial: General Motors Death Watch 225: Surprised?

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
editorial general motors death watch 225 surprised

A recent TV ad extols the wonders of the Cadillac CTS. Suddenly, the image zooms backwards and flips around to become a sparkling GM logo. “The CTS is made by General Motors,” the narrator intones. “Surprised?” I sure was. I mean, I understand the intended subtext: See? We’re not a total basket case. But as my father would say, if you’re so smart how come you’re not rich? Students of this series know that GM has plenty of answers to that question. The only thing neophytes should clock: none of these answers involve the phrase “we fucked up.” That and the fact that GM wants you to believe that their turnaround depends on building more cars like the Cadillac CTS. Uh-oh.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the CTS. It’s not a Bimmer beater or a Merc mauler or a Lexus liquidator. But it’s a fine car in its own right, especially at a discount. (Yes, there is that.) Just as the Chevrolet Silverado offers tremendous value-for-money, especially at a discount. (Yes, there is that). By the same token, the Chevrolet Malibu. And therein the problem: it is a token.

The vast majority of GM products– and there are over 120 of them– are, well… let’s not go there. There’s only so much J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey data a man can drink-in before it all starts to taste like Kool-Aid. So, back to my main point…

What’s with the blending of Cadillac and GM? Does anyone care that GM owns Cadillac? OK, given that taxayers will soon have a $13.4b financial interest in The General’s product portfolio, they might appreciate the heads-up. But GM’s paternal relationship with Caddy cuts both ways. On the upside, the CTS is GM’s automotive poster child. On the downside, the GM – Caddy hook-up rivals Jerry Lee Lewis’ first marriage to his cousin as “one those things with which marketing-minded folk shouldn’t bother the buying public.”

The CTS ad’s muddied message is symbolic and symptomatic of GM’s ongoing, endemic and abject inability to manage the core of its business. Cadillac is a far stronger brand than GM, which now stands for executive greed and incompetence, union intransigence, environmental foot-dragging, failed manufacturing, back-room politics and corporate socialism.

Cadillac is such a strong brand– still– that all it really needs is world-class products. Even if you put the CTS in that category, that leaves nothing much worth talking about, never mind buying.

GM is supposedly addressing this deficiency with the new SRX. The view from here: the SRX will be the CTS of luxury utes. It will offer plus-sized comfort priced higher than smaller, less expensive foreign competitors, for less than the cost of its larger, more expensive foreign competitors. How great is that?

Not as great as a no-compromise f-off sedan with presence, power and panache. That’s the popular conception of a Cadillac, as witnessed by the success of the blinged-out, gas-guzzling Escalade (to each their own in the panache department). In fact, all GM had to do with Caddy was build the world’s best automotive products and charge customers exorbitant amounts of money for the privilege of owning them.

Of course, GM can’t do that now. Now that the American automaker’s mortgaged its future to the suckle on the taxpayer teat, Cadillac is hemmed-in by GM’s need to satisfy its new owners: the democratic party. These days, Caddy’s alphanumeric model names might as well start with the letters PC.

This folks, is GM’s strongest brand. Saturn’s branding is in such a shambles that GM’s own TV commercial shows a customer who thinks he’s in the wrong showroom. Buick is dead. HUMMER and Saab are… never mind, GM’s selling/starving them. GMC? Pontiac? Chevrolet? When it comes to branding, GM ain’t got game.

Never mind a “viable business.” Can an American car company survive without viable brands? Not in this market.

I don’t mean a market suffering from seemingly terminal consumer constipation. I’m talking about an automotive arena filled to the rafters with a wide range of highly-focused automotive brands. From Toyota’s reliability rep to the MINI’s fun factor, from unattainable Ferraris to stack ’em high and sell ’em cheap Hyundais, there’s no niche left behind. Without a single compelling brand, GM is nothing more than taxpayer-funded chum in a shark-infested ocean.

So what’s Cadillac’s killer app? The CTS. And what’s CTS’ killer app? Cadillac. That’s the kind of self-referential logic with which it’s impossible to argue and, it seems, impossible to eliminate. But GM’s fortunes depend on better branding. Until and unless GM masters the art of creating and sustaining a tightly-focused automotive brand or eight, they are simpliy killing time. Even as they are slowly, gradually, inexorably killing the only truly valuable assets they’ve ever owned.

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2 of 64 comments
  • Brett Woods Brett Woods on Dec 31, 2008

    Cadillac in the same breath as Rolls Royce and Maybach? My heart is a flutter. Does anyone remember how much better than anything a Fleetwood Elderado was? When I was a kid the first thing I bought with my own money was a motorbike (Kawasaki KT30). It was a big deal. My parents were nonplussed, but when it came time for our once a year summer vacation, they packed our suitcases and put them in the trunk. And then they put my motorbike in the trunk too. And locked it. No roof rack. It was better back then. I now dream of that car with a 150kw electric motor and a motorcycle engine. Same car, same drivability - just updated efficiency.

  • Porsche986 Porsche986 on Dec 31, 2008

    I just find it sad that there is such polarizing opinions of the realities that are GM. It almost makes me think that there are a lot of GM employees posting on this blog. Take emotional connections out if this equation and re-evaluate: GM is devalued and practically worthless as an investment, their brands are damaged beyond repair as a result of DECADES of mismanagement, and at least from my experience their products are shoddy at best. My current company car is a loaded 06 Chevrolet Equinox LT AWD. It is loose, handles badly, is assembled with all of the care of a cheap dime-store plastic toy, and the interior is made of cheaper plastics than a disposable plastic take-out container. There are more rattles than I can count, the "check engine" light comes on EVERY time the gas tank hits 50% empty (the dealer still cannot figure that one out), and yesterday the glovebox opened all on it's own and dumped all of the contents out onto the floor while I was driving down the road. And now it won't stay closed. And for the record it has only 36K miles on it. My old Mercedes E300D had almost 500K on it and it was in better condition. So... anyone at all surprised?

  • Redapple2 Cadillac and racing. Boy those 2 go together dont they? What a joke. Up there with opening a coffee shop in NYC. EvilGM be clowning. Again.
  • Jbltg Rear bench seat does not match the front buckets. What's up?
  • Theflyersfan The two Louisville truck plants are still operating, but not sure for how much longer. I have a couple of friends who work at a manufacturing company in town that makes cooling systems for the trucks built here. And they are on pins and needles wondering if or when they get the call to not go back to work because there are no trucks being made. That's what drives me up the wall with these strikes. The auto workers still get a minimum amount of pay even while striking, but the massive support staff that builds components, staffs temp workers, runs the logistics, etc, ends up with nothing except the bare hope that the state's crippled unemployment system can help them keep afloat. In a city where shipping (UPS central hub and they almost went on strike on August 1) and heavy manufacturing (GE Appliance Park and the Ford plants) keeps tens of thousands of people employed, plus the support companies, any prolonged shutdown is a total disaster for the city as well. UAW members - you're not getting a 38% raise right away. That just doesn't happen. Start a little lower and end this. And then you can fight the good fight against the corner office staff who make millions for being in meetings all day.
  • Dusterdude The "fire them all" is looking a little less unreasonable the longer the union sticks to the totally ridiculous demands ( or maybe the members should fire theit leadership ! )
  • Thehyundaigarage Yes, Canadian market vehicles have had immobilizers mandated by transport Canada since around 2001.In the US market, some key start Toyotas and Nissans still don’t have immobilizers. The US doesn’t mandate immobilizers or daytime running lights, but they mandate TPMS, yet canada mandates both, but couldn’t care less about TPMS. You’d think we’d have universal standards in North America.