GM Hides Fuel-Efficient Small Cars and Trucks -- in Brazil

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006

INDAIATUBA, Brazil -- Some of the best little vehicles made by General Motors Corp. are not sold in its home market, and therein lies one of the biggest misconceptions about the world's biggest car company.

On most North American lists of small cars and trucks, GM products are at the bottom, if they are included at all.

Through its South Korean subsidiary, GM Daewoo Auto and Technology, GM makes the tiny Chevrolet Aveo car available to American consumers. But that hardly makes an impression in a fuel-challenged market where small suddenly is big business and where two of GM's toughest foreign rivals, Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., are winning hearts and minds with little runners such as the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and small wagons and sport-utility vehicles such as the Toyota Rav-4 and Honda CR-V.

Other Japanese manufacturers, including Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Suzuki Motor Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp. (controlled by Ford Motor Co.), are cranking up their small-car engines in response to U.S. consumer worry about rising gasoline prices. South Korean car companies, Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors, are increasing their offerings of small vehicles. And Chinese car companies are planning to join their Asian counterparts in America's small-car wars.

In those developments, GM seems invisible, apparently content with its current, albeit endangered, good luck in selling a slew of completely revised, but still gargantuan sport-utility vehicles and pickups. The public impression, at least in North America, is that GM does not care about small vehicles and that the company lacks both the will and the competence to produce them.

That is erroneous. But it's GM's fault.

Specifically, it is the fault of GM's North American marketing department and unions, which, for a variety of reasons and through myriad machinations, have managed to keep highly desirable small GM vehicles out of the U.S. market at a time they are very much needed.

The truth, as evidenced by a sampling of GM do Brasil cars and trucks at the company's Cruz Alta Proving Ground here, is that GM can make small vehicles as well as anyone else. But the company is hampered by a North American marketing belief that American consumers won't buy those models, and by labor politics that prevents the U.S. entry of those little cars and trucks because they are not assembled by the United Auto Workers union.

For the record, that's my take. GM officials are loath to be so blunt, although they know I'm telling the truth. They proffer seemingly palatable excuses, such as the high cost of retrofitting their Brazilian models to comply with U.S. safety and emissions rules.

I reject that argument. I refuse to believe that a GM that could make a huge Chevrolet Tahoe sport-utility vehicle meet stringent U.S. safety and air-quality standards can't do the same thing for the car-based, subcompact Chevrolet Montana pickup truck sold here. It just doesn't wash.

That being the case, I humbly suggest to GM's marketing and union people that they rise above their biases, work out their differences, do whatever has to be done and move quickly to strengthen the company's flimsy North American small-ride lineup by allowing the U.S. import of the following GM do Brasil vehicles:

ยท The Chevrolet Montana Sport pickup truck, preferably equipped with the company's splendid 1.8-liter, four-cylinder FlexPower engine, which means it can run on a mixture of 20 percent ethanol and 80 percent gasoline, 100 percent ethanol or gasoline alone.

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