Editorial: How GM Tried to Win Me Over, Part One

Darwin Hatheway
by Darwin Hatheway

A few weeks ago, I received this from GM Communications: “I’ve noticed some of your comments on our Fastlane blog. We are looking for passionate and influential consumers to participate in an upcoming showcase on August 10, 2010 [sic], in Detroit, MI. Would you be interested in a GM-hosted opportunity like this to learn more about our future vehicles and company?” I was more than a little surprised; my FastLane posts are generally uncomplimentary regarding GM’s products and business decisions. “Do they know we own three Toyotas?” my wife asked. “And we gave a fourth to our daughter, who’s happily driving it at 150 thousand miles?” “I think that’s part of it; they want to know what it will take to win me over.” “They could try building cars that are as reliable as Toyotas.” “I’ve suggested that.” “Don’t you dare bring home a GM car,” she warned.

I asked my long-time Scouting buddy Dave to come along. Dave recently bought his second Hyundai; he’s as pleased as punch with it. He looked at me warily. “They’re not going to expect us to buy a car, are they?” “Oh, no, certainly not. They’re probably interested in what they can do to win you over, though.” “They could offer a ten year, 100 thousand mile warranty, like Hyundai,” Dave suggested. “Until then, no sale.”

We flew to Detroit on August 9th, courtesy of GM. A company rep met us at the airport and whisked us to the GM Heritage Center via Cadillac CTS. This was also my first ride ever in a CTS—possibly my first ride in any Cadillac since I’d driven my grandfather’s ’68 Sedan de Ville back in 1971 or so. I remember taking a girl on a date in the de Ville. When I pulled up in front of her house she actually said, “Oh my, a Cadillac!”

The CTS’ rear seat didn’t have enough legroom. A fairly short writer named Sean Kennedy occupied the passenger seat in front of me. When I asked him to move his seat up, he fumbled around for power-controls on the right of the seat for a few minutes. He eventually discovered the standard, manual lever under the front lip of the seat, and moved his chair forward enough for me to be comfortable.

When I got home, I looked at the Lexus web site; power seats appear to be standard on an ES350. It also looks like they come standard on a Camry XLE. Is manual seat adjustment a problem for Caddy’s supposed BMW beater? The CTS’ rear-seat passengers get cup holders in the flip-down armrest. Dave and I placed a pair of water bottles inside. They kept threatening to fall over and out of the cup holder. Again, no biggie?

The CTS rides smoothly (if illegally) at 80. I guess Cadillac thinks stiff leather is somehow sporting; I prefer soft skins. The CTS roofline was a bit of an issue: I couldn’t see out of the windows without craning my neck (I’m just over 6′3″). The next day, I asked a GM’er who works in interior design about passenger visibility. He acknowledged the tradeoff between ergonomics and style. Anyway, the more important question: would someone say, “Oh, my! A Cadillac!” I’m not so sure.

Heritage

From an architectural point of view, GM Heritage Center is slightly above warehouse grade. But the cars put Dave and me in Car Guy Heaven. The selection seems geared towards the Boomer demographic and just a tad later. The collection showcased a number of GM concept cars, including some of those early fighter-aircraft inspired Firebird concepts—the type of machines I ogled in Popular Science convinced they’d one day hit the road.

Dave and I wandered around, identifying cars from our personal history. “My aunt had one of those. My Dad had one of those.” “I had one of those, it died at 20K miles.” That too.

I located a couple of Cadillacs similar to my grandfather’s ’68, and Oldsmobiles similar to his and my parents’ ’64. We admired the 442s and Goats of various vintages. Yes! A Judge! In orange! Note: I was fourteen when that car was unleashed, and I loved the look. And I’m still buying a Prius when we need a new car. Times have changed, and so have I.

Tweet This

After a time, we ceased wandering and started scarfing. GM had scattered the space with buffet tables. As we refilled our tanks, I tried to get a feel for my fellow junketers.

On the ride over, Kennedy told me he’d tested the CTS-V at GM’s invitation in upstate New York. The Brooklynite claimed to have written for Elle and New York magazines. Aside from Dave and me, our feeding table was populated exclusively by women, who didn’t seem to be “into” cars. The most automotive-engaged of the bunch had recently purchased a CTS, replacing a MINI Cooper. She advised Christine Somebody from GM to “spread some of that CTS mojo to the rest of your cars.”

In fact, we were surrounding by Social Media types: Tweeters and Facebookers charged with spreading the GM message “virally.” I’m no stranger to computers and networks. I’ve worked in Information Technology for quite a long time. I can manage servers, set up a LAN, repair PCs, do anything you like with SQL databases, write useful programs in several different languages, etc. But I don’t bother to keep up with what the kids are doing. So I checked out some of the Twittering that resulted from this event.

None of what I discovered was “Tweeted” by children, but you wouldn’t know it from reading it. Self-editing doesn’t really figure; the group tends to communicate without inhibition, without any idea of sentence structure or coherent composition (call it “puddle of consciousness”). So it’s no surprise that some of the Tweeters in attendance didn’t have a lot of inhibitions about the things they said in person, either.

Social Media may be “hip,” but I doubt it’s as influential as GM and other large corporations believe. The effective lifespan of a Tweet or Facebook entry—should we admit that it contains editorial value—is measured in minutes. The lifetime of information on social media matches the lifetime of fads, not the lifetime of most of the things we need in our lives. And certainly not cars.

Anyway, Tom Pyden welcomed us. I made some illegible notes, something about “Proud Past/Bright Future.” And then it was off to bed.

At breakfast, I met a fellow FastLane commentator: “edvard.” His daily driver is a 14-year-old Toyota Tacoma. Although he likes the idea of the Chevy Volt, I think he’s going to be a tough sell for New GM.

Our first stop: GM’s Design Center, close to the Marriott. We started in the auditorium. Chris Preuss, due to replace Steve Harris as GM VP of Communications, told us who we were and why we were there. Yep, there was a lot of mutual love between GM and the new Social Media.

It’s the Perception Gap, Stupid

Then, to my delight, Bob Lutz appeared, introduced as GM’s “Chief Creative Officer.”

Lutz launched into an attack on the “perception gap,” identifying the “crappy state of journalism” as one of its causes. The room ate it up. Lutz also played the humility card, stating that the New GM had many people to thank, starting with the U.S. and Canadian taxpayers.

At about that time, I began to wonder when, exactly, GM was going to start to try to win me over. I consider GM’s insistent talk of the “perception gap” an insult to my intelligence. I know what value I’m getting from my Toyotas. I know what value my friends and neighbors did not get from their GM cars. My experience, my neighbor’s experience, Consumer Report’s evaluations and resale values all point one way: GM’s cars, for quite some time, have not been as anywhere near as good as the competition.

GM’s 2009’s may be just as good as the competition, or better, but we won’t know for ten years. Meanwhile, all this “perception gap” talk just digs the hole deeper. It makes me wonder if GM is still thinking they can win me over with tailfins, by blowing smoke.

At least Lutz admitted that “earlier models” had interiors that looked like they were made from “solidified lava.” But that’s all changed! “Why?” I wondered silently, “Is there a shortage of lava?” Lutz also revealed that he’s as happy as a clam about the New GM and its nice tidy balance sheet and its consequent new ability to compete and un-retired because the opportunities were now so much better for GM.

Amongst other things, Lutz failed to mention the fact that New GM’s nice tidy balance sheet came courtesy of a whole lot of people who got thrown under the bus. And he was one of the drivers.

We still don’t know the full extent of the collateral damage. TTAC recently reported that GM has abandoned its obligations to Olds dealers, who were receiving annual payments as compensation for closing down. New GM has also shifted its environmental cleanup obligations to Old GM.

Lutz addressed the “Government Motors” meme. According to Lutz, the Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA) is letting GM run the business to make money so that the taxpayer can get the taxpayer’s money back. This makes quite a bit of sense and, frankly, I believe it.

Lutz implied that the PTFOA and the new Board of Directors were at least partially ignorant about what GM was really like. According to Lutz, the new Board was completely unaware that GM absolutely rocks on fuel economy. The Cobalt XFE (available only with a manual transmission) beats the rest of the class on the EPA tests.

Just don’t look too closely at the EPA web site because you’ll find that the XFE actual fuel economy reports don’t measure up to its EPA test scores. And at least some of the competition routinely beats their EPA test scores. And never mind the Prius or Yaris or any of those profitable small Toyotas against which GM doesn’t even compete.

Naturally, someone asked Lutz about global warming. Lutz was delighted to have the opportunity to call it a “crock of shit” without actually using the word “shit.” Happily enough, he’d just told a joke about “shit” that involved a clueless politician giving a speech and Native Americans whose word for “shit” was “hoya.” The audience had laughed at this joke, which I found astonishing; the joke is as old as elected office itself.

Lutz’ calling global warming a “crock of hoya” would be somewhat more credible if his lengthy answer hadn’t involved several “facts” which I know to be wrong. Why he bothers defending himself on this topic, or even discusses it, is an open question.

Someone (not a Tweeter) asked Lutz if GM was generating the necessary cash flow to survive at the current U.S. annual new car selling rate (SAAR). Bearing in mind that the Old Guard at GM claimed they were OK right to the bitter end, I’m taking Lutz’ “at 10 million, we’d like to break even” with a grain of salt. He also proffered that, at an 11 – 11.5 million SAAR and a consistent market share, New GM would be “comfortably profitable.”

New GM’s first income statement should be interesting.

Ed Welburn Lifts the Skirt

After Lutz rallied the troops, we visited the “Design Salons” for GM’s four remaining brands, starting with Cadillac.

I’ve gotten used to Cadillac’s “Art & Science” design language. While I’m not its biggest fan, I admire the way that the designers are applying it across Cadillac’s product line. Cadillacs look distinctive and resemble each other in key ways. I think this is important for a brand, and I think Cadillac is getting it right.

There were no particular surprises in the design salon, but we did get a chance to admire the cars and a couple of clay models. Dave burst out, “Those are made of clay?” I’d never seen clay models either; they are amazingly lifelike. Just don’t grab the door handles . . . they come right off.

Our next stop: GMC. For the most part, I am not a big fan of GMC. The new Terrain is, in my opinion, ugly. I know this sort of thing is highly subjective, but GMC’s adding design cues to an Equinox-sized vehicle to give it Yukon-sized visual dominance. The end result is grotesque. GM had better hope the Terrain sells on the surprisingly good fuel economy it shares with the Equinox.

GMC also showed us a clay model of a possible smaller GMC CUV, which was much more attractive than the Terrain (no pointless bulges over the wheel wells, for example). There was no mention of the vehicle’s proposed drivetrain. One of the GMC reps said they could squeeze 40 mpg out a [presumably four-cylinder] direct injection engine. In theory, that’s significantly better than a Toyota RAV4.

I had a question about the CUV’s doors. “Why bother if these won’t last past the concept stage? You never do suicide doors.” The GM rep patiently pointed out that GM has occasionally delivered rearward-opening doors on certain vehicles, like the Saturn 3-door coupe and some extended-cab trucks. Which is true but . . . I can’t recall any vehicle since the ’60’s Lincolns that had full-size suicide doors intended to be operated independently of the fronts.

Although I am not a big fan of the bulbous Buick Enclave, I generally like the brand’s design. The new LaCrosse’s v-curve body line reminds me of our ’57 Buick; an evocative touch. Buick had two extremely attractive clay models: another, smaller CUV and a new smaller sedan. The latter will most likely sit on GM’s Global Midsize Platform (they no longer call platforms by the Greek letters).

The Chevy Salon was set apart in a small, domed building. The Bow-Tie brand says they’ll offer a new Corvette Grand Sport (more than a regular Corvette, less than a Z06), a convertible Camaro (which looks far better than the hardtop, at least when the roof is stowed), Spark, Orlando, Cruze and new Malibu.

We saw a clay model likely to become the 2012 Malibu. It was an improvement in some ways, but the front-end profile looks more Camry than ever. You can’t win over airflow, I guess. Some described the new ’Bu as beautiful; it didn’t do that much for me. As the current Malibu was introduced in 2008, perhaps drivetrain changes are driving the redesign.

Ed Welburn spoke briefly about “The Lab”: GM’s interactive method for revealing design ideas to customers. I wonder if it’s practical and whether web-based customer data will lead to better cars. There’s often a lot of vocal web or enthusiast support for vehicle proposals, that may or may not survive and thrive in the marketplace. I’d be concerned that “The Lab” will get a lot of intense feedback from a skewed segment of the market: un- or under-employed people with nothing better to do.

Ed then revealed three new Cadillac designs: a midsize sedan, a new, small coupe and the fullsize XTS, the replacement for the DTS and STS.

The XTS was a disappointment. At the Heritage Center, I’d encountered a ’68 Fleetwood Brougham limousine in shiny black. That was an imposing car. When it rolled by, you knew somebody filthy rich or very important was in it. The XTS didn’t hit me that way, partly due to the graphite paint job.

Sure, it’s attractive. Yes, it’s an extension of Art & Science. Anyone who likes the current Cadillac look will not be disappointed. But there’s not enough “oomph.” Perhaps it doesn’t matter; I’m never likely to be wealthy enough to buy the modern-day equivalent of a Fleetwood Brougham limousine. In fact, few will ever be. Or should be.

When I returned to the Twin Cities, I found a DTS in taxi service in a garish paint job. How far the mighty have fallen! The XTS can hardly do worse. Memo to GM: Please ensure I can see out the back windows.

Chevy Volt

We headed over to Pre Production Operations (PPO), where GM’s assembling Volts in small batches to test the build processes, components, etc. One of the managers and one of the union reps (Local 160) greeted us at the door. They exuded an air of real cooperation, and I was glad of it.

I like unions. I think they add necessary balance to the workplace. But union organization and the management reaction to it often leads to contention, strife, poor relationships and, for lack of a better phrase, gross inefficiency. If they have that at the Volt PPO facility, they keep it capped. Maybe the shock of bankruptcy has brought about a new era of cooperation. Maybe this plant has always been different. Or maybe the old relationships between GM and the union were never as bad as we thought. In any event, I liked the atmosphere in this building.

There were quite a few Volts in various stages of assembly, all in primer gray metal and black plastic. The dark gray interior stack was attractive. The engine compartment looked fairly normal. Where the car and battery came together, it was obvious the car is different. Otherwise, the Chevy Volt looked like a fairly normal compact car.

Many attendees wanted to know the Volt’s fuel economy after the battery goes flat, how much gas it holds, total range, etc. GM was very evasive. There didn’t seem to be any fuel tanks in view, so I couldn’t make my own estimate.

During the walk-around, we met both Andrew Farah and Frank Weber. I could have sworn I heard Farah mention “400 miles range.” But Weber recently answered the question, “Can I go from Detroit to Chicago on one tank of gas?” with “I don’t know the precise distance but it it’s 300 miles, you should be OK.” So the Volt’s range is still anybody’s guess.

If the Volt has, as the Detroit News recently reported, an eight gallon tank, if the car goes 350 miles, the “charge sustaining mode” fuel economy is going to be a disappointing 39 mpg.

I started asking Weber questions about the differential and the tradeoff between that and two motors, but the group was moving on and our guide encouraged me to keep up. I moved along, thinking GM wasn’t real keen on tough questions about the Volt.

The Culture Worriers

We headed for the proving ground. Time to drive! Well . . . Not quite. Our handlers herded us into the building, where we cooled our heels until Chris Preuss and GM CEO Fritz Henderson spoke. I took very few notes, but I know that Fritz said that “since bankruptcy, we must think every day about our customers.” And “It’s all about the cars.” They’ve cracked the code!

Henderson repeated an early pronouncement on the Volt: “The biggest problem with the Volt is what to do with old gas in the gas tank.” I suppose if you’re CEO of a giant company, the idea of $40K for a compact car may not be a problem for you. But, trust me: price is the Volt’s biggest problem.

Henderson also promised that “We’re changing the culture of the company”—as if saying it enough times will makes it come true.

Up to this point, the GM Product Technology Event was largely a matter of endurance, with a little bit of wining and dining. The presentations were occasionally interesting and a little enlightening. Equally often, they were boring, uninteresting, vacuous and/or annoying. We saw some pretty cars in the Salons, but that only carries the program so far. Some won’t make it to market, some will change radically before they do. The Salons are an exercise in “maybe” and “maybe” won’t win me over.In the afternoon, things changed, radically, for the better.[Part Two is here.]
Darwin Hatheway
Darwin Hatheway

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  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Sep 28, 2009

    I see no reason to start using technology that already exists to improve how we generate and consume energy. We can boost the grid with solar and wind reducing some of the need for coal/nukes/hydro. We can already have very durable EVs with the NiMH that Chevron sued/forced Toyota/Panasonic to quit making. These batteries powered normal RAV4 CUVs - a very useful size of vehicle with a very useful 100 miles range with all the typical creature comforts. While these vehicles won't be the right vehicle for everyone - get them out there for those of us who want them and can use them as the tech stands today. The tech will mature and evolve into something more useful for more people. While this might not stop global warming - if it exists - it can't hurt as long as people are getting motivated by these vehicles to offset the amount of electricity they consume on a daily basis with solar or wind or both as best suits their location. Offsetting what electricity a person consumes with solar and/or wind is an obvious and more direct method than paying some company to plant trees somewhere - which is very difficult to trace and verify. Instead of bailing out Detroit with tax dollars we should have been boosting the car companies able to build EVs right now, springing the NiMH patents via eminent domain just like when a gov't takes a neighborhood for a shopping mall or NFL arena, and been paying people to put solar or wind power on their properties. Get the UAW out of the factories and let people work on green-tech instead.

  • John Fritz John Fritz on Nov 08, 2009
    Interesting.
  • Dave Has to be Indy 500. Many more leaders and front passes than NASCAR, and Monaco is unwatchable with the inability to pass on that circuit.
  • Jeff How did the discussion get from an article about a 56 billion dollar pay package for Elon Musk to a proposal to charge a per mile tax on EVs in California or paying increase registration on vehicles to make up for lost gas tax revenue? I thought such a discussion would better fit Matt's Gas Wars series.
  • Master Baiter Both people who bought ID.4s will be interested in this post.
  • Urlik Not a single memorable thing happened in the big three races this weekend IMHO.
  • Ajla If Goodyear makes rain tires that allow NASCAR to race in damp conditions at longer ovals (other that at Daytona and Talladega) then I promise to purchase at least four new sets of Goodyear tires in my remaining life.
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