By on August 15, 2009

[Read Part One here]

Like many American car buyers, I place reliability near the top of my “must have” list. Over on GM’s FastLane blog, I told GM they’d conquer [some] Toyota and Honda customers when the American automaker’s ten-year-old cars offered the same service as ten-year-old Toyotas and Hondas. Truth be told, New GM may not HAVE ten years. So it’s no surprise that they tried to wow me with tail fins and technology. When the speeches finally ended in the Proving Ground auditorium, I was invited to sample New GM in the “now.” Our PR handlers gave us a quick safety talk (don’t do anything stupid, obey the traffic wardens) and turned us loose.

GM’s Milford Proving Ground had two test tracks: “performance” and “city.” The urban track was the less popular of the two. I used it almost exclusively; I wanted to do as much driving and as little waiting as possible. The course was a mix of coned paths across extremely large parking lots and stretches of some of the Proving Grounds road system. It included a short slalom and some S-curves, so you could exercise the vehicles a bit.

My original intent: test only cars I might actually buy. Ordinarily, that would be the Chevrolet Aveo, Cobalt or Malibu. For some reason, the Aveo and Cobalt didn’t get invited to the event. Someone else grabbed the Malibu first, so I headed for the Buick LaCrosse.

Buick LaCrosse

A friendly-looking woman wearing slacks and a polo shirt stood alongside the Buick sedan. It was Jeanne Merchant, the LaCrosse’s Vehicle Line Director. I didn’t waste her time.

“Can I drive it?” I asked.


If GM fails, I’m not going to shed a tear for Bob Lutz or Fritz Henderson. I’m going to hold them responsible for the automaker’s destruction. But there are hundreds if not thousands of other GM employees whose lives are more like mine, and I’m sympathetic to their plight. Even so, mismanaged businesses fail. It’s never pretty, but it’s a fact of life. The people who work for the competition have to eat, too.

Merchant’s sense of pride gave me reason to hope for GM’s troops. She was completely confident I was going to like the Buick LaCrosse.

I’d read Dan Neil’s review, favorably comparing the LaCrosse to a Lexus. I’m not qualified to judge the Buick against a Lexus; I drive a derivative of the 1996 Corolla. But the LaCrosse has a lot of inherent appeal; it’s nicely appointed with an extremely attractive interior. It provides comfortable seats, an equally comfortable ride and handles well enough for its intended mission.

The 3.0-liter engine offers sufficient power to move the car along without drama. Even with the 3.6-liter engine (sampled later), it’s no sports sedan; but as a quiet cruiser, it succeeds. If Buick can get people to try the LaCrosse, many of them are going to like it.

Chevrolet Malibu

I was not nearly as impressed by the Chevrolet Malibu. First, cars in my price range are never as impressive as cars above it. Second, the Toyota Camry is a better car.

The four-cylinder Camry is eager to get up and go, whereas the Malibu must be prodded into action. Equally important, the Camry quickly finds the right gear in every situation, where the Malibu can be caught out. The Camry’s handling isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s competent and straightforward. The Malibu I tested had more engine vibration and less poise.

I often hear people claim the Malibu is better looking than the Camry. I’m willing to bet that most of those people prefer the Malibu’s design because they want a reason to prefer a Chevy to a Toyota. Ditto the “appliance” condemnation of the Camry. The Malibu has four doors, a modest size engine and front wheel-drive. It’s the same kind of appliance as the Camry, only not as good.

Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon

The Aveo and Cobalt were unavailable so . . . why not?

Driving a CTS Sport Wagon is miles better than riding in the back of a CTS. Halfway through the course, I asked my GM handler if I could do a U-turn and go through the slalom again. The Sport Wagon offers easily controllable balance through the corners. It’s attractive, comfortable and goes like hell. What’s not to love?

On reflection, I don’t think the CTS Sports Wagon handles much better than the mid-90s BMW 3-Series I drove last year. That car felt much more nimble, with far better fuel economy. Of course, the CTS is a bigger machine and this one is bigger still, but I suppose that a contemporary, similarly-priced BMW wagon would be equally impressive.

On the positive side, the CTS Sport Wagon offers some practical features, such as a roof rack that completely disappears and rails with adjustable tie-down D rings in the wayback. I found myself wondering: if a CTS wagon is such a great idea, where’s my Cobalt or Malibu wagon?

Clean Diesel

I’m not the target market for a diesel automobile. If I have to take another three-day trip to Philmont with eight Scouts, three other adults and a trailer, I’d be happy to rent a fifteen passenger, diesel-powered passenger van. Otherwise, forget it. In fact, I can’t even remember if the vehicle was badged Chevy or GMC.

The van was about 7500 pounds, empty. My speed kept falling off. The oil burner had enough power, but the noise punished me for seeking higher rpm. The dynamics were predictably truck-like. The good news: GM says it’s now offering a 6.0-liter clean diesel engine with a urea-based system (not presented). I wrassled the van back to its parking spot, thanked the GM rep and went to look for something more my speed.

Cruze Control

Most of the Tweeters missed this one as well; they were “busy” queueing-up for the Cadillac CTS-V, and the Chevrolet Camaros and the Corvettes. The Cruze was parked by itself, with a lonely-looking Mike Danowski standing by it.

“Can I drive it?”

Mike looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, no.”

“Can I get in and look around?”


The Cruze has an excellent interior. If the two-tone seats aren’t leather, they’re an excellent facsimile. The Cruze’s cabin is bright and airy, with good sight lines and readily managed controls. The Cruze has a lot of zing, which a the highly competent Corolla LE lacks. If the Chevy offers good performance and class-compliant fuel economy, prospective Corolla buyers may be tempted.

That’s a lot of ifs. Still, the Corolla has left the door open, a little. The 1.8-liter Corolla LE’s four-speed automatic could sure use another gear. Even if the Cruze offers a fifth gear, winning a Camry loyalist to a new Chevy is the definition of a tough sell.

The Cruze was GM’s only small car at the event, and it wasn’t driveable. GM had made no real effort to win me over with small cars.

Saturn Vue PHEV Hybrid (Soon to be the Buick Something PHEV Hybrid)

My friend Dave drove this proto-Buick. Dave doesn’t believe in CO2-induced Global Warming. He couldn’t care less how much CO2 is blown out the tailpipe. To Dave, hybrids are irrelevant.

When Dave mashed the pedal flat to the floor, the tester’s electric motor and the gas engine woke up and the vehicle leaped ahead. “Dave, the point of a hybrid is to save gas by allowing the gas and electric engines to cooperate and work appropriately with each other and . . . Oh, never mind.” As Dave hustled the gas – electric Vue through the S-curves, the vehicle managed to stay on battery power for at least a short time.

GM representative Carol Johnson admitted that the hybrid soon-to-be Buick CUV’s weight was an issue, along with battery cost. She indicated that GM would get some of the cargo room back, but the vehicle would lose its spare tire. Dave’s lead foot aside . . .

“Why have you got a V6 up there?”

Johnson said GM management believed that the vehicle’s cost, brand and market indicated a need for accelerative performance.

“But it’s the fuel economy that sells these things,” I countered. “Toyota sold 19,000 Priuses last month. It doesn’t have excellent performance.”

Carol looked at me, “I know.”

Of course she does.

HCCI Test Vehicle

The Tweeters also ignored GM’s Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI) vehicle. It was parked near the Cruze, so I thought it was also a static display. Engineer Vijay Ramappan was happy to find someone curious about the technology. The last I knew, HCCI didn’t work.

“Can I drive it?”


The car was equipped with a fire extinguisher. “Are we going to need that?” Dave asked. Vijay shook his head. “That’s just a safety regulation.”

Vijay’s laptop was wired into the car. An LCD display perched atop the center stack showed the engine’s operating zone. Danger! Checking the throttle’s effect on the display’s dots is far more interesting than watching the road ahead.

The HCCI car has the oomph of a regular 2.4-liter engine, perhaps bit more. There’s a tiny bit of diesel clatter and a very slight shudder at certain times. I attributed the sensation to the shift from spark to compression and back, but it might have been the transmission.

Vijay says GM’s put about 15,000 miles on the HCCI powerplant. He admitted that high-pressure fuel delivery and cylinder pressure sensors added to the engine’s expense. Unsurprisingly, he thought volume could drive costs down. Fuel economy would be significantly increased and the engine cost should eventually compare favorably with diesels. And you don’t have to use diesel; the HCCI powerplant should run well on E-85.

“Will you beat everybody else to market?” I asked.

Vijay frowned, just for a moment. “We don’t know. I think so.” He listed a few of the major manufacturers, what he knew about their programs and whether or not they seemed to be making announcements. Most of the others have been quiet, which could be a hopeful sign for GM. [ED: Or a sign that they don’t consider the technology commercially viable.] A new technology or capability can help sell a car to alienated customers.

Yukon Two-Mode Hybrid

Dave drove again and flogged the thing mercilessly. I couldn’t see the dash all that well from my seat, so I don’t know whether or not he was able to degrade fuel economy into the gallons-per-mile range. He was certainly trying his best.

The Yukon Hybrid was car-like and comfortable—and expensive. It’s over $50,000, roughly $15,000 more than a base Yukon and much more than an Acadia, which gets better highway fuel economy. Product Manager Tom Hughes revealed that GM sold about 600 two-mode hybrids last month.

Despite their failure in the marketplace, GM appears to be digging in. They claim they aren’t going to abandon the large-vehicle hybrid market. Hughes says improvements are on their way. A lower price would be the most useful improvement of all.


I appreciated the opportunity to talk to GM about their products. As the automaker can’t prove their new vehicles’ decadal reliability, or drop the price so low that reliability doesn’t matter, the junket was a suitable Plan B to put their products back on my menu. But was this junket simply a charm offensive aimed at eliminating the so-called “perception gap” or something more?

I talked to TTAC’s publisher about this. Farago assured me that GM employees (and auto industry types in general) are good people who always do their best. “No one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to build a crap car,'” Farago said. “But GM’s culture is working against them. Most of their employees can’t even see it happening.”

Jeanne Merchant, Mike Danowski, Vijay Ramappan and their GM colleagues all had pride in their vehicles. After careful thought, I don’t think it’s misplaced. The real question: is it enough? It’s early days, but has New GM done enough to win over customers from rival brands? More to the point, did they win me over?

[Read Part 3 on Monday]

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65 Comments on “Editorial: How GM Tried to Win Me Over, Part Two...”

  • avatar

    Great articles. Nice work!

  • avatar

    I completely sympathize with the cubicle employees at GM and the line assembly workers as well.

    I think that GM’s biggest problems as alluded in the article is upper-level management and the marketers. They are the ones who drive cost-cutting and in charge of structurally wrong choices like the engine and transmission options, quality tolerances, interior content and lack of a longer warranty.

    What did Wagoner drive during all those years at GM? Did he go on a cross-country trip in an Uplander to drop off a kid at college? Did he ever commute 50 miles a day in a Malibu for weeks on end? (if he did he would have noticed the utter lack of seating comfort if you continuously spend more than two hours behind the wheel, lol)

    Wagoner probably got chauffered to work in a DTS, rode the Gulfstream and had a “ringer” STS in the garage when he headed to drive on his own. Not representative of the average GM product.

    You gotta live with your company’s product to fully appreciate your customers’ needs. Not just have track time in a Corvette or at the wheel of the latest concept car.

  • avatar

    Well-done article. It’s a shame that GM didn’t have any (new) small cars on hand to try.

  • avatar

    Outstanding article. A great example why print media has such a dim future.

    In the battle of positive (GM 230, etc) spin versus negative (screwed over dealer stories), what side is winning?

  • avatar

    Toyota and Honda has definitely left the window open for GM to pounce. It all depends on whether the next generation of Toyotas coming out in the next few years are still expensive and crappily-built, and whether GM can sustain the improvements they’ve made with their cars.

    Only then will Honyotaphiles think about leaving their brand.

    Personally, it’s still going to take a few years to see if GM products are quality. They made too many mistakes that ingrained in the public’s minds. It only takes one crappy car to ensure a lost customer for the next 10-20 years.

  • avatar

    I don’t blame them for not having any Aveos or Cobalts on hand, since they are both on the way out. There was no reason not to have a Cruze, though since it is on sale elsewhere. The Fiesta seems to be readily available.

    As for the HCCI, would YOU really be first in line for a new tech like that – from GM??

    Glad to hear the other models you tested seemed up to par.

  • avatar


    Rick Wagoner drove a black Cadillac Escalade ESV Platinum. I saw him driving it during the bailout coverage.

  • avatar

    More to the point, did they win me over?

    Well..did they?

  • avatar

    On reflection, I don’t think the CTS wagon handles much better than the mid-90’s BMW 3-Series I drove last year…

    I once again have to take some issue with your CTS versus BMW comparison.

    First of all, you don’t specify what level of CTS you drove or which engine was under the hood. There is a very large difference between the FE1, FE2, and FE3 packages on the CTS. The FE1 is for grandma, while the FE3 is so sharp it would give the dearly, departed G8 GT a run for its money. The FE2 is somewhere in the middle.

    Second, you’re vague about what mid-90’s BMW you are using in the comparison. Was it a 328i with the sport package, a basic 323i, or a 318ti hatch? The term “3-series” covers a lot of different stuff.

    Third, just about every car for sale today isn’t going to be as nimble as an E36-generation 3-series. This includes the current E90 3-series.

    For a (very) brief period, GM offered two cars that legitimately competed dynamically with BMWs. I never thought I would see that happen, and do give the company some credit for pulling that off.

    The CTS isn’t much of a “luxury” car, but I do consider it a pretty good sports sedan. It would have made a great Pontiac.

    Other than the CTS talk, I did enjoy reading these two editorials. I hope you consider writing more for TTAC in the future.

  • avatar

    Well written Darwin. Thanks for the positive comments concerning GM employees.

  • avatar

    Until GM’s management stops abusing their engineers (and production runs) like deferential South American gardeners sweating it out all over gated communities in El Norte … overall quality will continue to be what it’s been for the last 35+- years: fine for aspirational 3rd worlders and Rush Limbaughlites.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    As the automaker can’t prove decadal reliability, or drop the price so low that reliability doesn’t matter…

    The interim risk is unacceptable. Provide an honest 10-year factory warranty and the “perception gap” goes away.

    Terrific report. Looking forward to No. 3.

  • avatar

    “if a CTS wagon is such a great idea, where’s my Cobalt or Malibu wagon?”

    HHR is a Cobalt wagon. Malibu wagon? Anyone?

  • avatar

    An incredible new voice has found its way to TTAC.

    I eagerly await future articles from this contributor.

  • avatar

    I’m just hoping the author comes to his senses before closing the deal on the Prius.

    Ok a genuine GTO Judge is rare and crazy expensive but a Judge tribute can be found within a magnitude of the cost of a Prius.

    Deep down inside the author’s Id (or alter-ego or whatever) there is a longing for the Pontiac. Why else would he have mentioned it? It had little to do with the point of the story. Yet there it is in black in white for the world to see.

    The big mill, the garish paint, the silly decals all beckon across the decades. The author gives us some jive about how he was 14, times change and how he is going to purchase a Prius. 40 years have passed yet the Goat’s allure still comes thru loud and clear.

    Close your eyes and think: It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, not a cloud in the sky. You pull up to a light and look over. There sits a 20 year old pup in a Corolla, covered with Flaming Skulls, with a Maxwell House can for an exhaust topped off with a surplus MD-80 stabilizer on the trunk. Now you could be sitting in the Prius. listening to Garrison Keillor singing about Rhubarb Pie whilst thinking “Hey. I’m getting 46 miles per gallon today”. On the other hand you could be thinking “Here come Da Judge” while revving the big Ram Air beast.

    Times have indeed changed. You have also changed. But not that much. The choice is clear. Get the 1969 GTO. When you are 85 and thinking back you won’t regret it.

  • avatar

    “The interim risk is unacceptable. Provide an honest 10-year factory warranty and the “perception gap” goes away.”

    They may not even need to put their money where their mouth is. If they take a cue from AIG, they can promise a 1,000 year 100,000,000,000 mile warranty with no consequences if they actually need to pay up.

  • avatar
    Jeff Puthuff

    “if a CTS wagon is such a great idea, where’s my Cobalt or Malibu wagon?”

    Malibu Maxx? (Terrible name for a car, but a great name for a pornstar.)

  • avatar

    It’s really not what is going on inside GM but outside that is the problem. The cars are sold to fleets, discounted heavily, and the resale reflects overall desireability of the product. For right or wrong, other brands are what used car buyers are looking for in greater numbers.

    It’s the backend that is killing GM and has already killed Chrysler. In the old days people didn’t think much about trade in or at least didn’t care. Today you pay 30 or 40 K for a car and in 4 years you get 5K in trade or maybe 7K selling it yourself and you’re going to feel pretty bad. Especially if you are upside down in the loan for 3 years, finally get above water and the full warranty expires leaving you exposed to repair costs.

    I think a lot of people remember transmission failure, head gaskets, AC problems, and a host of other common problems too common to be a coincidence and more like engineering snafus and cost cutting. Once you lose the goodwill of the customer it’s over.

  • avatar

    So the Buick hybrid will lose its spare tire?

    That would be enough for me to remove it from my candidate list. I know this isn’t the only car with no spare – a little googling reveals a few other mainstream cars that are spareless. They’re off my list, too.

    Yeah, I know, get AAA or the manufacturer’s roadside assistance. That simply doesn’t cover all situations. I like knowing that I have a spare tire. If my tire blows, I can drive on the spare/donut for a little while until getting to a tire shop is convenient. And fix-a-flat doesn’t fix everything.

    Etcetera…no spare tire = no purchase by me. I suspect from a marketing point of view, it may not matter, because a lot of people will just assume they get one and it’s not like the salesman is going to point out that the car doesn’t come with one.

  • avatar

    Darwin, I too was invented to and attended the same GM event you did. GM went to considerable length with accommodations and food, and no one around me complained. Bob’s “Hoya” story brought on quite a few laughs, so not everyone has heard it. We were not allowed to take pictures of design studio models nor of the Volt production facility, but could do so at the test track – I assume the part 1 picture posted came from the Aug 11 event for “the press”, who were allowed to take pictures.

    The “new” GM attitude was certainly a breath of fresh air and I was impressed by their presentations and the technology in their pipeline.
    However, I don’t recall any major discussions of improving the dealer network or after-sales customer service – the focus of the event was GM technology and future offerings.

    An early flight prevented my sampling the popular Cadillac CTS-V, Chevrolet Camaros and the Corvettes. My drive of the CCCI car went pretty much like yours, while the reasonably responsive Fuel Cell crossover felt heavy from its hydrogen tanks and prototype additions, and GM admits the Hydrogen fueling infrastructure will only exist in 3 cities for the foreseeable future. The new Equinox revealed much improvement, but did little to suggest my ’09 Forester needed trading in. Ditto wrt the Cadillac SLR’s, which neverless helps Cadillac get closer to the Euro standard it’s aiming at. The Buick Vue Hybrid could, if interior, noise and feel are improved, take sales from Lexus’s RX hybrid, which got bigger and heavier for ’10.
    A pity the Cruze host did not explain why the sample was not drivable.
    I’m not surprised by the absence of Aveo and Cobalt – they represent “old” GM.

    Some customers were very critical of Bob Lutz and his design choices; in effect, biting the hand that brought them there in the first place. Still, Bob, Fritz and the other GM staffers took notes, asked us questions, encouraged our comments.

    WRT the Volt, the proving ground presenters earnestly pointed out their studies claim roughly 90% of customers only need a 40 mile daily range. They also admitted the Volt cannot charge its battery from its gasoline engine – that may prove a major weakness even with its target customers.

    As for the Malibu Maxx, which came from Saab/Opel and Bob Lutz’s hand in tailoring for USA, “Old” Chevrolet never figured out what to do with it.
    Mine was a capable freeway cruiser and good passenger hauler, but not particularly reliable and abysmal in snow. However, Buick and Cadillac seem to have a better handle on that type of vehicle and may introduce superior versions of it – assuming “new” GM survives.

  • avatar
    frank rizzo

    Very nice article. Nicely detailed and fairly balanced.

    But why would they showcase the Cobalt and Aveo, two cars on their way to the graveyard? Seems like a useless refrain to me Fair point about the Cruze, though the engine sold in other markets has been consistently described as not properly tuned for the US market. Would you rather test a ringer under the hood or wait a bit to pass judgment?

    Also have to say that I had no problems with the four-banger in the Malibu. While I drive an Aura 6 Cyl, I recently rented a Malibu 4 in Denver and headed up to the mountains. Absolutely no problem with the engine. The only reason I didn’t buy a Malibu over a Aura was the incentives at the time. I’m actually shocked that the test Mailbu didn’t include a 6 since it isn’t much less efficient then the 4 cyl and very nice to drive.

  • avatar

    Regarding the decadal reliablity, it’s such a weird thing. I know I mentioned that, but a 97 Plymouth Neon (bought in August 1996) gave me a stellar service for 176k miles until I sold it for $850 a year ago — with one big exception: it had a head gasket leak at around 86k miles, which costed me $866 thanks to California labour rates. I admit it, I bought the little beast just because _everyone_ I knew suggested a Corolla. Their facial expressions were priceless for 11 years [0]. Also, Neon was $11k (in ’96 dollars), and Corolla was 16. And, it did 38mpg highway easy [1]. I’m pretty sure it should be possible to luck upon a Cruze like that [2].

    [0] “You bought… an AMERICAN car?!!!” and in a few yers, “You still drive that Neon?!!”

    [1] I coaxed 40 out of it doing 70 on cross-country trips, but that’s different.

    [2] The question is, how likely it will be. Oh, and the mileage won’t be there for sure.

    {Forgot to mention, old Neon was made in Belvidere, IL by unionized workforce. If only every car they made was like that.}

  • avatar

    Forgot to mention, that HCCI thing sounds _very_ interesting. Thanks a lot to Darwin for reporting it. I just hope GM won’t charge as much for it as they do for Volt.

  • avatar

    You just get the sense that the employees want to have pride in their work, but are stifled by the sheer mindf!&@ that is GM management.

  • avatar

    Ya know…

    Comparing the Yukon “hybrid” to a Lambda by saying the Lambda is more efficient..

    Is like saying the Olympic and Brittanic (sister ships) are more efficient (in the water, wont sink as fast) than the Titanic.. cause they got retrofitted with a double hull, and higher bulkheads.

    I hate how GM does this greasy shit.

    They try and tell ya.. that the Lambdas are LIGHTER cause of the frame they are on.

    Just like they are going to try and market the Vue and its hundreds of siblings just like the TB.. in hopes that the lemmings trade those other POSs in for a VUE.. thinking its more efficient.

    Last time I checked..
    Thats like trading a smoking addiction for a DRINKING ONE.

  • avatar

    Provide an honest 10-year factory warranty and the “perception gap” goes away.

    This seems a common sense call in various GM/Chrysler commentary. It’s extremely simplistic however. It would be mind-bendingly expensive for GM, and I’d be sure is not an option for them.

    Hyundai planned their warranty change-up for years in advance. Pressure on part quality, design detail changes and the shear logistics required were all started years in advance of the warranty time extensions. The costs would have been staggering, but they choose the hard road to get back from the brink.

  • avatar

    I drive a derivative of the 1996 Corolla.

    Geo Prizm? :)

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    This seems a common sense call (an honest 10-year warranty) in various GM/Chrysler commentary. It’s extremely simplistic however. It would be mind-bendingly expensive for GM, and I’d be sure is not an option for them. – PeteMoran

    Cost should be minimal if General Motor’s world class quality claim is truthful. GM wouldn’t fib, would it?

    In 2006, Business Week said General Motors is increasing its key parts durability specification from 80,000 to a still inadequate 100,000-miles. Cars engineered to fail at 80,000 have a 100,000-mile recommended tune-up interval! What does that say about GM integrity? Regardless, the new standard will not be achieved for decades – if ever.

    Ten years of satisfactory repair indexes are needed to restore consumer confidence. Millions find the interim risk excessive. An honest 10-year factory warranty and the “perception gap” goes away. If GM and President Owe are unwilling to underwrite it why would individual purchasers front the cost?

  • avatar

    Very interesting articles. Seems at least this junket paid some dividends for GM. Maybe not is all bad for them? But it doesn’t really matter to people like me who grew up with Vegas, Caddie diesels and Chevys dressed up as Oldsmobiles.

    But me gamble $40k for a Volt! Are they out of their minds?

    One correction, the Cruze auto is six speed I believe. At least in Europe

  • avatar

    “The Aveo and Cobalt were unavailable so . . . why not?”

    They’re both crap, and history. They wanted to woo you, not drive you away forever.
    And yes, it’s very plain to see you’ll be sticking with Toyota. I never once read about or saw ‘the moment’ where you fell in love. Just didn’t happen.

  • avatar

    Here’s the whole problem: you SHOULD have left completely blown away by everything. And they couldn’t do it! They still can not stinking do it!!!!!!!

    GM is still in la-la land about what they THINK they’ve got…

  • avatar

    mikey :
    Well written Darwin. Thanks for the positive comments concerning GM employees.


  • avatar
    Andy D

    Great series Darwin, I am curious to hear more about how and why you selected to attend this event.

  • avatar

    You just get the sense that the employees want to have pride in their work, but are stifled by the sheer mindf!&@ that is GM management.…

    You know, most people do in fact want to do a good job. Empower those who work for you and the vast majority will make the extra effort. When you treat your employees like crap, lie to them, or use them as you scapegoat, well, you reap what you sow. How do you think a line worker feels when they are constantly blamed for GM’s woes? Other that outright sabotage (pretty rare today I would think) very little of why people eschew GM products today is due to what happens on the line. The guy in the engine plant is not the one who told you to kiss off when your intake gasket disintegrated. It is demoralizing to work where every day feels like you are going to hear that your toast in two months. Workers aren’t “entitled” to a job, but they are entitled to a little respect. Ask any IT guy what it is like to hear that your entire department outsourced…

  • avatar
    Tommy Boy

    > It is demoralizing to work where every day feels like you are going to hear that your toast in two months. Workers aren’t “entitled” to a job, but they are entitled to a little respect.

    Agreed. I regularly blast the UAW, I believe with good reason.

    FWIW, I believe that unions (in general) foster this type of dynamic, for their raison d’etre is labor vs. capitalists, and the union officials are like politicians who, to maintain their positions, foster a “without us to protect you” mentality amongst the rank and file to justify their (the union bosses) existence. Since by law management can’t deal directly with workers, but must go through the union, management tends to divorce itself from caring about the workers and what they think, for the workers in effect belong to the union, which is just another vendor (a hostile one at that).

    This is not to say that a disrespectful attitude toward workers is solely a unionized workplace phenomenon. There’s plenty of bad management out there in non-union facilities as well.

    Indeed, in the case of GM they’re cursed with both clueless beancounter management and the UAW, which explains why “but for” a taxpayer bailout they’d be out of business now (and rightly so).

  • avatar

    There is another element at play here, which I discussed with Darwin: accountability. Or, more specifically, the lack thereof.

    Not a single UAW worker has been thrown on the street as the result of GM’s bankruptcy. ALL of the layoffs/buyouts have been bought and paid for by GM stockholders and lenders and, now, us. I’m sure they didn’t WANT the gravy train to stop, but no one was thrown out of the car.

    Outside of CEO Rick Wagoner—who was terminated after more than a decade of incompetence and paid millions of dollars to not show up for work—I don’t know of a single GM executive who was summarily dismissed for non-performance. Who got canned for Saturn? Saab? Pontiac? HUMMER? Who was fired for misbegotten turkeys like the Chevy SSR, new Cadillac STS or Lucerne? And if you don’t think they were bad, who got fired for not selling them properly?

    What about GM’s dealer relations? What GM executive was removed for allowing/encouraging the Bill Heard debacle to fester?

    Not to put too fine a point on it, the words “you suck you’re fired” don’t figure within GM’s corporate culture.

    As GM employees don’t face dismissal for personal failure, performance metrics (i.e. goals) are meaningless. Accountability has disappeared.

    Without accountability there is no excellence. Again, I’m talking about PERSONAL consequences. Cough Lutz cough.

    Darwin doesn’t see this as the key to GM’s corporate face plant. “You can’t produce great products in a climate of fear,” he told me. To which I politely said bullshit.

    You can’t create great products in a climate of complacency. Which would be as good a description of GM’s culture as I could devise—if it went far enough. GM actually dialed it all the way up to arrogance.

    For me the key question is whether or not New GM is any less arrogant than Old GM. Can you say “perception gap?” In other words, no. The management honestly believes they [still] have what it takes to compete, even though they went friggin’ bankrupt. All they have to do is go faster.

    Which brings us back to fear. No one at GM got their ass whooped. So why would they abandon their myopia?

    Even if you don’t believe in fear as motivation, a company’s overall health depends on a healthy amount of churn. Companies with “lifers” become stultified. Moribund. Stupid. Lazy. Inefficient. Bureaucratic. Slow. Etc. They constipate companies.

    GM is still a company of lifers. When lifer Fritz Henderson said that GM’s culture would change through simple attrition—rather than shit-canning a bunch of complacent fools—the automaker doomed itself to failure.

    GM employees have pride in their work. Good for them. What they don’t have the fear of God. No one stood up post C-11 said, you know if we keep four brands, and two of them don’t make it, you’re all fired. And I mean fired. Not laid off, downsized, bought-out or ass kissed. Toast.

    The truth is that Darwin attended this event as a FastLane commentator, not a TTAC writer. GM did not, as GM employee Christy Garwood stated, invite its toughest critics to sample its wares.

    You want genuine criticism? I DARE GM to junket TTAC. Let me and four of my contributors loose on new products, including the Volt. Let me interview Lutz, Henderson, LaNeve, Whiteacre and others. Contact [email protected]

    Yeah right. New GM wouldn’t know the meaning of “face the music” if you plunked them down in front of the New York Philharmonic. Same as it ever was.

  • avatar

    Which brings us back to fear. No one at GM got their ass whooped. So why would they abandon their myopia?

    Compare that with Kia, who fires people if they look sideways at the CEO. After glancing at Kia’s turnaround new lineup – Soul, Forte, No. 3, VG, and Sorento – it looks like keeping people on their toes works.

  • avatar

    Hyundai / Kia N.A’s problem ISNT how they look at the CEO, its their shitty marketing of their vehicles in the U.S.

    And I hate to say this… (please lord don’t strike me where I sleep..)

    I rather have Hyun/Kia execs that have fear in their leader.. than be gutless yesmen from GM!

  • avatar

    No-one else expressed surprise that GM has a “proving ground”? Eh!?

    I thought all they had was a drag-strip (or am I mixing that up with Chrysler?).

    @ Gardiner Westbound

    Sorry, you lost me?

  • avatar
    Tommy Boy

    >>Even if you don’t believe in fear as motivation, a company’s overall health depends on a healthy amount of churn. Companies with “lifers” become stultified. Moribund. Stupid. Lazy. Inefficient. Bureaucratic. Slow. Etc. They constipate companies.

    Sounds like the government.

    Oh, wait, the government is officially in charge of GM now, isn’t it?

    As the Who sang: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss …”

    Only this time, I think that while the taxpayers may not get fooled again, we’ll surely be screwed again. The Obama and his Democratic will never want to admit that their bailout of the UAW was a failure, so the IV of taxpayer dollars will continue for the foreseeable future, perhaps into perpetuity.

  • avatar

    I think the best companies often don’t work on fear, but work on encouraging people to do their best, and to be creative, and they work on listening to the workers as to what will help the company do better.

    If the morale of GM staffers is generally good–and they weren’t just sending staffers with good morale to this event — that is a positive sign.

    But from what Mr. Hatheway says about the cars, they still have a ways to go. If I drove the ‘bu and the camry, and had the same reactions as he did, I’d certainly go for the Camry.

  • avatar

    If GM upper mgt or the UAW leadership had the guts, they would print Robert Farago’s note above and have it stuck up on every bulletin board in the Corporation.

  • avatar

    Hyundai / Kia N.A’s problem ISNT how they look at the CEO, its their shitty marketing of their vehicles in the U.S.

    Their US problem isn’t directly marketing, it’s that people *won’t* forget the Hyundai Excel or Kia Sephia despite the fact their current products are significantly better; it’s the same problem GM is facing. Their warranty is going a long way to fix that. It’s annoying that it seems the Genesis can’t be discussed without some direct or indirect reference to the 20-year old Excel. Funny, but no one mentions the Ford Exploding Pinto or Crown Vics that are still burning police officers to death whenever the Fiesta, Focus or Fusion are mentioned.

    If one looks at the rest of the world, Hyundai/Kia is doing something right, based on this story that seems to have gotten lost in the midst of all the Ford cheerleading:

  • avatar

    I’m no fan of fear as a component of corporate culture. I’ve lived there and it generally motivates people to take fewer risks, while they look for jobs elsewhere. Companies operating this way simply drive down the center of the road and fade into mediocrity; they don’t break out of their shell the way one would hope.

    What GM needs to lose is the “too big to fail” mentality, which kills their competitive energy and motivation. They need the same perseverance and drive that a racer has once he sees someone gaining on him.

  • avatar

    Even if you don’t believe in fear as motivation, a company’s overall health depends on a healthy amount of churn. Companies with “lifers” become stultified. Moribund. Stupid. Lazy. Inefficient. Bureaucratic. Slow. Etc. They constipate companies.…

    Robert, in general I agree with that assessment, but with certain limitations. Without question, if there is no ramification for poor performance, there will always be those who try to coast. This of course, makes the job for those who do produce that much harder. At the engineering firm where I used to work, a lot of the guys liked working on City design contracts. Why? Because if there were errors and omissions on the design drawings, there were no financial repercussions for the mistakes. That took tons of pressure off because E/O can have serious ramifications. However, too much “fear of God” creates a toxic environment. At that same engineering firm, we were bought out by a larger firm. The new policy went like this: Design job requires 3 weeks of man hours out of employee X. so, allocate only two weeks of design time to employee X and watch his time sheet carefully. Employee X, already wary of the new owners, works extra hard to make the deadline, you know, free work after hours and through lunch, no interaction with coworkers, just robotic production. Nobody wants to give a Saturday up, so you really slave to get it done. And you do. So next time, an additional day is sliced out of your time allocation. Kind of like I Love Lucy in the candy factory. Of course, the chances of errors rises when you work like this. The workplace was a suck ass place to be. Especially when your friends in accounting told you how the bosses spent like drunken sailors on themselves. The employees began to hate upper management, and the brain drain began in earnest. “Churn” was an understatement. I ditched those assholes and never looked back. So did 70% of the design staff. The slugs were the ones left behind. There has to be some respect for your employees and vice versa. I always felt that if sometimes you thought the boss was an asshole, then he/she is probably doing a good job. If you hate him or think he’s always a great guy, well, then he’s a poor manager.

    GM, as you well note, continued to pay top salaries to upper management and received seriously piss poor performance out of them with no repercussions at all. Shit rolls down hill, so when you create a work environment like that, others often follow suit. Why a few key top people didn’t have their heads cut off is beyond me. I feel bad for the engineers who really wanted to build good stuff, only to have their hard work “value engineered” into the toilet. I used to get sick when I was given a “design/build” project because that was just code for how cheap can you make it…

  • avatar
    Lug Nuts

    I drive a ten-year-old GM car, a Chevrolet. I custom ordered it new, have driven it 145K miles, and it’s been completely bulletproof the entire time. My only maintenance costs have been one set of brakes, two sets of tires, and one coolant flush. Two minor issues, though. First, it came from the NUMMI plant. Second, whenever I pop the hood, the word “Toyota” is prominently displayed all over the place.

    Oh, and one more problem with no easy fix. Government Motors is dead to me, as is Chrysler.

  • avatar

    @ Mr Farago..For your information nearly 3000 hourly people at GM Oshawa took some form of buy out/pension. 300 or so contract employees terminated. I’m not sure of the salary numbers,but at the lower levels its quite high.

    As of Aug 1st 1275 are layed off indefinite. With benifits running out, and no hope of recall.

    The good news? Well…We got all those people,that will never see a GM paycheck again. I’m sure they will all sleep better,knowing they wern’t fired.

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    What truly baffles me is that these morons are proud of their crap.

  • avatar


    Sounds like those GM workers got a helluva good deal compared to most fired workers lately. this is called a soft landing and it’s pillow soft compared to most people who arrive at work and find their key card doesn’t work and the security guard directs them to a room off the reception area. The employee’s personal items can be picked up after 5 PM the next week. Then they get to pay 1500 dollars a month for COBRA health care while collecting 300 a week in unemployment. If a person has a few years in they might give a few weeks severance pay, not a lump sum. The word buyout is never used.

    the rest of us need 1 year of living expenses in the bank and have to start retraining for a new career immediately. When we see trouble at work we look for new options immediately, rather than ask our Union Rep what is going to happen.

    These UAW workers had years of notice these days were coming, enough time to save money, put the house up for sale and move along. But BECAUSE of the pillow landing and promise of benefits, 2 years pay and other goodies they stuck around. If it doesn’t materialize then it was their gamble gone wrong.

    And I resent my tax dollars being used to finance the whole damn thing.

  • avatar

    @GS650G I knew it was coming, I read TTAC. Robert Farago posted a comment here pointing out a
    lack of accountability. Mr Farago’s may be right on concerning the higher levels. I woudn’t know. But us folks a little lower on the food chain have paid,and are still paying a massive price.

    Right…With 36 plus years I got pretty good deal
    I thank the CAW for that. The lower seniority and the salary/contracts and a whole slew of others got a fraction of that.

    The media hates us everything your read and see take with a grain of salt.

    @kevin klutz First off I don’t believe I’m a moron. Secondly I’m damn proud of every car/truck I ever had a hand in building.

  • avatar

    I saw the Cruze parked at the Ren Cen and was really impressed by the looks. Its definitely a small car with style. If they can pull off the 40+ MPG that they claim, and its reliable, it will definitely be a winner. To me, this is the car that should be fast-tracked to production with all stops pulled. Not the Volt. Its a car many of us would buy right now if we could.

  • avatar


    So after 36 years of working I would assume you saved a part of that salary, paid off your house and managed to get your kids through school. Congratulations on all of it. I don’t begrudge the CAW or UAW for getting good deals during the good times, but when it is over it’s over and the socialist nature of the close downs is not just expensive to the companies but to the public as well. If these workers, especially the lifers, did not put anything away it’s their own damn fault. The rest of us save and invest the best we can, taking funds away from material things.

    We are reminded how expensive a GM failure would be yet look at how expensive GM on life support is.

    It’s not possible or practical to provide these lush benefits for everyone who loses a job. Individuals need to take responsibility for themselves every day they have a job and prepare for anything that might happen. Might not be pleasant to do or think about but smart people don’t cling to driftwood, they find a way into a boat.

  • avatar

    To: Kevin Kluttz :
    August 17th, 2009 at 7:56 am

    What truly baffles me is that these morons are proud of their crap.

    Kevin, Morons? Really? For taking pride in our work? I understand it’s very easy to make comments on these sites, and it all feels very clubby and intimate, but “we” are all out here. The morons. What do you do Kevin, and are you proud of your work?

  • avatar

    @GS650G…..Yeah I agree, but lousy planners come from all walks of life. I always figured the pension was safe. So far so good,but with every check every month, I figure it could be the last.

    Somewhere around Death Watch 20 I started building a life boat, she’s got some leaks but basically seaworthy.

    Many of my coworkers could be compared to the little piggy,that built his house from straw.

    You still gotta feel for the dude when the wolf starts huffing and puffing.

  • avatar

    The wolf has been huffing and puffing for a long time, some people delayed the inevitable by sheltering behind the security of powerful organizations who had a lot of clout. But time has borne out the fact that it was an unsustainable system which crashed. When three automakers dominated the market for all sorts of vehicles and made obscene profits weekly, it was possible and even acceptable for golden packages. Hell, I would have jumped on board too if there was an chance I could make a above average income, plus benefits and retirement, with an average education and skillset.

    The Unions should have coached the members on building their own nest eggs and taken steps to wean people off the tit the last 5 years. It would have made a huge difference today.

  • avatar

    Toyota and Honda has definitely left the window open for GM to pounce. It all depends on whether the next generation of Toyotas coming out in the next few years are still expensive and crappily-built, and whether GM can sustain the improvements they’ve made with their cars. Only then will Honyotaphiles think about leaving their brand.

    Maybe sooner than that. I’ve owned Hondas and Toyotas (and Ford trucks/vans) since 1982 but switched to a Subaru. No real issues with the last Toyota, but nothing they have now got me interested. We wanted a small SUV and in the comparison, for us, the Forester beats out the CRV and RAV4. GM or Ford wasn’t even in that hunt. Also, drove a Hyundai rental on a long driving vacation and was very impressed. Based on these experiences neither Mrs. or I will ever buy a GM or a ChryCo product for any reason, Ford truck probably (to replace the aging Expedition tow mule).

  • avatar

    There are two opposing threads here on corporate culture. One say’s people have to fear real consequence’s for failure, and one say’s you need to encourage employees to take risk. Someone pointed out that the best companies don’t live in a culture of fear. I think that the best companies successfully merge both concepts. They encourage risk taking up to a point, but there is still management review of ideas percolating up from below. The key here is not to reflexively squash those ideas just because they came from below, but even a great idea from the rank and file may have to be put off a while or not acted on at all because the company simply doesn’t the resources to do it or do it well. It is better not to attempt to do something, than to attempt it knowing you have insufficient resources and the end result is going to be poorly realized.
    And Robert is also correct that when someone does something really terrible, they need to be fired, and everyone needs to know that firing is a real possibility. There is a huge difference between not punishing risk taking, and tolerating endemic failure to perform. The tricky part is getting the balance right between encouraging risk taking and punishing outright failure. The best companies navigate that line well.

  • avatar

    I wasn’t too keen on Part One. However, Part Two was excellent. I look forward to Part Three.

  • avatar

    I’ve had 3 good American cars: ’69 Camaro 327 (great engine, straight line cruising, body, horrible brakes), ’88 Grand Wagoneer (great in the snow, horrible oil burner after being rear-ended) and a ’02 Focus wagon (zippy and fuel sippy = actually I miss that car most of all, from a haul it, abuse it and it loves you, standpoint).

    Current vehicle that GM will have to beat: an ’06 Subaru STi, at the wheels 400 lbs of torque, 375 lbs horsepower … reliable, fuel-efficient (Ethanol powered), stock internals, and all-wheel-drive. This car is what GM coulda’, shoulda’, woulda’.

    If GM can build fun, safe, reliable, upgradeable cars that don’t cost German M3 money, then I will buy one.

  • avatar

    Shame about not being able to drive the Cruze. You’d think that would be the car that they’d try their hardest to get everyone to drive and comment on.

  • avatar

    “if a CTS wagon is such a great idea, where’s my Cobalt or Malibu wagon?”

    Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

  • avatar
    Joe Chiaramonte

    Another great read, Darwin.

    “GM had made no real effort to win me over with small cars.”

    This follows a very long trend, indeed. All eyes are on the Cruze.

    Now, on to part 3….

  • avatar

    “if a CTS wagon is such a great idea, where’s my Cobalt or Malibu wagon?”

    They have it – they are called crossovers or CUVs (and GM’s CUVs are far too big to be called small CUVs).

    For a smallish GM wagon see the Vue or Outlook or whatever other 39 GM SUVs they sell. That’s as close as they get. Ain’t close enough for me if I’m shopping for a wagon.

    Also I’m not buying a vehicle best suited to a V-6 – I’m buying a four banger with a five speed if it can be had. Vehicles are TOO heavy.

    Yeah, GM’s lack of wagon options don’t cut the mustard with me very well either. I’d like to buy a real quality wagon about the size of a “Subbieroo” or Passat made by GM. Guess my options are to move to Europe. -errr nix that one. Opel is sold…

    Guess my options are simply to shop other brands or save up ALOT of nickels and dimes and buy a CTS but I won’t b/c I can’t justify a $40K+ vehicle for a seven mile commute… No, make that I WON’T justify it.

    Like ten years ago when I bought or CR-V. I had excellent service from previous Hondas so I looked there of course.

    There weren’t any small SUVs or wagons from the domestics back then and I’ll likely have to look to the imports again. The Geo Tracker was not a “domestic” to me and I don’t think the Ford option – whatever you call it – had arrived yet. Neither had the Vue. Still don’t have much interest in the Ford option – whatever it’s name. I actually like the Caliber -if it was cheap enough b/c I just “know” it’s going to break, repeatedly and the resale will be miniscule. The Vue looks pretty good but I don’t really want a Daewoo. I’d give it a closer look before I gave up on it.

    I’d rather just go buy a CR-V again and be done with it and know I’ll likely get a good product.

  • avatar

    I’m a G.M. retiree. I’ve worked in four plants including one assembly plant. From my 15 years in assembly the most prevelent quality issues weren’t a product of production workers it was a problem of assembling inferrior parts! If the parts you assemble are “Junk” no matter how well the vehicle is assembled you still have “Junk”. No matter the blame is always put upon the worker. G.M.’s Waggoner and G.M.’s board of director’s non-stop votes of confidence (in Waggoner) have destroyed N.A.O. This in my opinion was their intent

  • avatar

    If GM wants to close the “perception gap”, they need to put their money where their mouth is: 7 year/ 70,000 mile warranty, minimum. Without it, there’s no way they’ll attract toyonda buyers.

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