Behind GM's Attempt to Change Image Is Ambivalence About Its Car of the Future
Sunday, June 7, 2009
Even now, as General Motors fights for survival, there is something ambivalent about its prescription for saving itself, a conflict implicit in a bit of symbolism that recently greeted arrivals to the Detroit Metropolitan Airport even before they reached baggage claim.
One of GM's touted new automobiles sat on display in the center of the automaker's airport gift shop. It was not the coming electric car, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, championed by Bob Lutz, the GM executive most identified with the Hail Mary that the vehicle represents for the bankrupt company, which faces the immediate future as a ward of the federal government. It was not one of the relatively new GM hybrids. It was not even a mid-level sedan called the Chevy Malibu, which has received flattering reviews and awards, in part for its better-than-average fuel economy.
It was instead a car that flies in the face of all the worries about the American automotive industry, all the calls to make it more environmentally responsible and therefore more viable: the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS with a V-8 engine, General Motors' version of the fast and powerful model that automobile enthusiasts commonly call a muscle car.
With an estimated 25 miles per gallon on the highway, the 400-plus-horsepower Camaro SS is not a car renowned for being fuel-efficient. It is another Bob Lutz car, a monument to Lutz's and GM's enduring hope that even as the company struggles to escape bankruptcy as a smaller, leaner producer of fuel-efficient vehicles, the glory days can somehow be resurrected.
"Sexy with charisma," is how Lutz recently described the Camaro while in his office on a square-mile expanse known as the GM Technical Center, the nucleus of the company's research and development efforts. It is the kind of Detroit-speak he favors. "Some people don't care for those kinds of descriptions today -- it's a different time," says Lutz, who drives a gas-thirsty 2009 Corvette, a dream car of muscle lovers. "But we have new vehicles, too. We have the Volt. We are committed to the electrification of the automobile. We know this is the time."
If you were to believe that Lutz commissioned the Volt because he thinks the environment needs to be saved from carbon dioxide emissions, or that the United States has a moral obligation to lead a greening of the planet, you would be wrong. "If you look at most of the mainstream media, you get the impression that 95 percent of Americans today want a vehicle like the Chevrolet Volt or a [hybrid such as the] Toyota Prius," says Lutz, until recently the former head of GM's global product development and nowadays the company's vice chairman and senior adviser. "And that, by God, the reason General Motors is in trouble, is that we have not offered a vehicle like that. But when you look at the reality, at today's fuel prices, most Americans still want a conventional car."
Why the Volt then? "Because it is an important symbol. We need it. It has a chance to change our image," he says.
As GM's situation has become increasingly dire, and interested parties from President Obama to shareholders have demanded that the company start making more fuel-efficient cars, GM has pointed to the Volt as evidence of its changing ways. But the values that have long shaped this iconic company are deeply held, especially the passion for pushing the envelope of automobile performance and power. In many ways, the Volt, and GM's subtle shift from old design priorities, represent a contradiction of those values.
Meanwhile, some industry observers are unconvinced that the Volt, even if it runs flawlessly, can be the company's savior, and view it as a miscalculated effort to woo back customers by awkwardly trying to demonstrate a new cutting-edge bent.
"I just think GM is focusing on the wrong thing," says Daniel Roos, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the automobile industry. "The quality of its cars was horrible in the '70s and '80s, but it's much better now. It has world-class vehicles: the Malibu and the Cadillac CTS. They should be [promoting] those and capitalizing on their strengths."