At the New 'Design-Driven' General Motors, Smiles on Wheels

By Warren Brown
Sunday, October 7, 2007


It's too early for General Motors to declare "mission accomplished." The company still has a long way to go in its expensive, product-intensive turnaround. There are obstacles aplenty, including a credit-crunched national economy that could slip into recession and crush new-vehicle sales. And competitors, of course, aren't sitting still while GM forges ahead.

But there is a discernible note of confidence in the voices of GM's top executives today. And there are smiles on the faces of the company's designers, engineers, vehicle line executives, marketing and communications people.

Such expressions should not be mistaken for bravado or wishful thinking. They are, instead, tangible personnel indicators of what is happening in a company that has changed its culture from one of authoritarian control with little regard for consumers or rank-and-file employees to one in which car people -- designers, engineers and marketers -- have been empowered to go full blast in anticipating and meeting consumer needs and demands.

It is a corporate revolution.

Back in 1982, when I began covering the automotive beat for The Washington Post, visiting GM's headquarters in Detroit was akin to a prosecutor checking up on a suspect. There was something rotten in Detroit, something somebody in the company was trying to hide from the media -- always a sob story or a blame-shifting saga meant to throw the prosecutor off track.

I seldom was allowed to question designers or engineers unaccompanied by a phalanx of corporate public relations people, whose presence had an effect on interview subjects that the presence of police in Burma might have on dissident citizens speaking to foreign journalists.

There was lots of official bravado in that old, dying GM. But the truth of the place was reflected in the sullen faces of rank-and-file employees who knew better.

Today's GM is much different, as evidenced by the company's northeast regional preview here last week of its 2008-model cars and trucks. The new GM brought vehicles sans excuses. Every model displayed spoke for itself, and did so favorably.

The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, for example, has emerged from bread-and-butter mediocrity to become a beautifully designed and smartly engineered mid-size family sedan that invites pride of ownership at a starting price of $19,995, with a Malibu Hybrid version beginning at $22,790.

The 2008 Cadillac CTS entry-level luxury sports sedan, GM's styling leader with a completely redesigned and much-improved interior, already is a best-seller. Ditto the Saturn Sky roadster that is doing what few would have thought a GM roadster could do, which is to steal sales from the iconic Mazda MX-5 Miata.

New trucks and sport-utility vehicles from GMC, the company's trucks-and-nothing-but-trucks division, are coming with dual-mode hybrid gas-electric technology that saves more fuel on highway runs than current gas-electric models. And every single one of them has impeccable fit and finish.

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