An Executive and a Crossover With Oomph
Sunday, November 26, 2006
History answers slowly. The success or failure of a new enterprise or idea seldom is determined in time for the 11 o'clock news. Even answers that seem final aren't always so. Someone comes along to change the outcome, to upset predictions.
At General Motors Corp.'s Saturn group, that someone is Jill Lajdziak, a tiny firebrand of a woman who has taken on the tough guys in GM's executive suites and pushed her division and company ahead in the process.
Saturn was a work of good intentions and poor execution when it was launched by Roger B. Smith, then GM chairman, in 1990. Smith wanted to break the stranglehold of GM's risk-averse middle managers on product development. He figured that the only way to do that was to start a new company, Saturn.
But he filled Saturn's leadership with many of the same people who were dragging GM downhill, and he failed to mollify the leaders of Chevrolet and other divisions who felt slighted by the creation of Saturn and who saw corporate money once earmarked for them flowing to a new group.
Despite those handicaps, Saturn managed to establish a more customer-friendly selling technique for GM. But all of the infighting and backbiting left Saturn bereft of hot products. It was a matter of technique without product or passion, deficits that seemed destined to doom Saturn to failure.
In 2004, when the GM board revoked Saturn's original status as a stand-alone corporation and thereby eliminated Saturn's board seat, the company appointed Lajdziak (pronounced LA-jek), a longtime Saturn marketing executive who barely stands 5 feet tall, as Saturn's general manager.
Many outsiders saw her appointment as Saturn's kiss of death -- a defective corporate bauble tossed by the GM boys to the GM girls in obeisance to affirmative action. They were wrong.
What Lajdziak lacks in height, she makes up in competence, passion, and a religious commitment to Saturn and GM. She demanded that GM's leaders give her money for better products. She refused to take no for an answer, always pointing out that what was good for Saturn was good for GM. She was right.
Anyone doubting that should take a look at the 2007 Saturn Outlook, an eight-passenger crossover utility vehicle that is the latest of Lajdziak's revivalist wonders. Her other new Saturns, all hits, include the Sky and Sky Redline roadsters, the Aura sedan, and the Vue Green line hybrid SUV.
What the Outlook has in common with those models is Lajdziak's passion for excellence -- her attention to detail and commitment to quality, her refusal to accept the nonsense that a family vehicle or an American product has to be second-rate.
My assistant in vehicle evaluations, Ria Manglapus, and I ran the front-wheel-drive version of the Outlook XR through our respective family torture chambers. We piled on the miles, piled in the people and the stuff, and drove it over some of the roughest pavement we could find just to see if we'd get the usual gripes and grumbles from our many passengers. We got zilch.
Our passengers, including those in the third-row seat, rode happily. Even with all three seats up, we were able to pack all of their stuff into the rear luggage compartment. Because the Outlook is based on a unitized car platform, it rode low to the ground, like a car, which meant the older, less agile members of our families easily entered and exited the vehicle.
Ingress and egress also were helped by Saturn's clever design of what it calls the "smart slide" second-row seat. With one hand, you can push that seat forward into a fold-flat position.
A 3.6-liter, 275-horsepower V-6 engine in the XR version provides ample oomph. And although the Outlook is as large as Ria's Honda Odyssey minivan, it handles in the manner of a much smaller and lighter vehicle -- and it looks better than the Odyssey inside and out.
We like this one. We like it very much. But it's too bad GM decided to call it the Outlook. The company should have adopted the phonetic spelling of the Saturn general manager's surname and called it the Lajek.