What's Wrong With This Video: The Day Ring Times Jumped The Shark Edition

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

How did the company which virtually invented automotive marketing become so piss-poor at it? How did the promotion and advertising of General Motors automobiles become reduced to a series of meaningless comparisons, numbers, and statistics? We are now in the fifth decade of General Motors’ abject failure to understand why people buy imported cars. In the Seventies, GM thought it was miles per gallon, and every GM ad trumpeted the Chevette’s ability to match the Corolla or Civic gallon in fuel economy. Forget the fact that the Chevette was a genuinely horrible car which has only recently found a reason to exist (a kick-ass, single-make ice-racing series, if you must know). In the Eighties and Nineties, GM marketing flacks got a whiff of “performance” and we were deluged with claims that the Pontiac Grand Am GTXPXT-W31-442-Z34 got better lateral “g” than the BMW L7. Of course, it took a skidpad, or a glassy-smooth racetrack, for something like a J-body to even catch sight of a Bimmer’s rear bumper.

Lately, it’s been Quality, and I’m capitalizing the “Q” ironically for all you Pirsig readers. Again and again, we are told that GM matches the best brands out there for quality. Most people read these ads to say, “OMFG, that car I would never buy is almost as good as the car which has given me eight years of trouble-free service.” Customers don’t care about JD Power numbers; they care about their own experience and the experiences of people they trust. GM spat directly into the faces of those people forty years ago and they’ve been doing it ever since.

And now, finally, we have Nurburgring times. The CTS-V is supposedly the fastest sedan around the ‘Ring. Nobody seems to care. If ‘Ring times ever really meant anything to anyone beyond frothy-mouthed teenagers pounding a keyboard in skid-marked underwear, the endless controversy about Nissan’s latest GT-R has more or less killed that goose. The GT-R’s times around the ‘Ring vary by nearly forty seconds, depending on who is driving, which tires were on the thing at the time, and whether or not anybody actually checked the boost controller before the car went out. ‘Ring times are worthless, useless, forgotten. They’re as played-out as the PT Cruiser…

…so naturally GM has an HHR for us to watch.

I got into a little Twitterversy the other day for suggesting that vehicle engineer Jim Mero is perhaps leaving a few seconds on the table in the above video. He is committing nearly every sin that would prevent a NASA HPDE student from being passed into the fourth level: he shuffles randomly, he leaves his hand on the shifter and one-paws the car through corner after corner like he is profiling on Woodward Avenue, and “smooth” is not the word than any sighted person would use to describe his inputs. Oh well. He got the time, and the stopwatch is blind. It’s not like Chevrolet is going to fly me over there to take a shot at it; they save that kind of PR handjob trip for Motor Trend.

The question is: does anyone care, particularly when the seven-second improvement is almost entirely due to a new set of tires? The ZR-1 is now faster than the Viper ACR, which is faster than the GT-R, which is faster than the 997 GT3, which is faster than the Boxster S, which is faster than your humble author’s 9:15 BTG in an automatic-transmission SLK200. Were I lucky enough to own my personal favorite RIng-wrecker, the Viper ACR, my first thought would be, “Hey, let me get those tires, and I can still beat Vettes.” Or I would do what every sensible trackday driver does and buy the Hoosier R6. Is the ACR still faster around the ‘Ring on equal tires? Almost certainly. Is it faster on every track in the world where top speed isn’t a factor? Absolutely. (The ACR has a big wing on back, you see.)

The question becomes: why did GM bother to take the time, fly the cars, and produce the video? ZR1 sales are flat. I can buy brand-new ones for $95,000 all day. YouTube isn’t going to change that. Is it just for bragging rights? That’s great, but the company is long past being able to waste money on bragging rights, unless those bragging rights are for things that actually matter — like providing a high-quality owner experience. Unlike inflated MPG ratings, lateral g skidpad numbers, or JD Power rankings for ashtray failures in the first three days of ownership, that never goes out of style.

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  • Evan Evan on Jun 13, 2011

    Truly, the JD Powers rankings are nearly worthless. Take for example 'long term ownership': They classify it as 3 years - whereas the average age of a car on US roads is 10 years. A car that utterly destroys its transmission is wieghted equally to a car that has a mere transmission fluid leak: 'faults reported' is a lazy, pathetic way to uncover reliability issues, and yet it is their standby method.

    • See 2 previous
    • Rob Rob on Jun 13, 2011

      Doctor Olds, the industry doesn't "rely" on JD Powers, it just uses JD Powers in its marketing when it is beneficial - and they would be foolish not to, whether it is useful or accurate or not. In the April 2011 issue of Consumer Reports, the long term reliability of the largest manufacturers (over ten years) from best to worst was: Toyota, Honda, Subaru, Nissan, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Hyundai, GM, Volkswagen, Chrysler. Maybe this was part of the reason Ford didn't need a bailout. Obviously, some models are better or worse and newer cars by a given manufacturer may be better or worse than the ones they made ten years ago. So, if GM has finally cracked the code on reliability and maintains that excellence for the next ten years - I might actually buy one. We'll see.

  • DenverMike DenverMike on Jun 13, 2011

    The geezers that can afford the ZR1 aren't in it for speed. The ZR1 is a car GM made for itself. Nobody asked for it. Ford built the Ford GT to stroke its own ego in wisely limited numbers. It was a winner at the track but a loser at the cash register. Sure they get the young to the showroom but it's not the '50s anymore. Too many choices out there. Time to focus on the mainstream cars, GM. Playtime's over.

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