For G.M., Better Cars, Worse Sales
DETROIT, Nov. 13 — This year, General Motors has been getting some
attention that it isn’t accustomed to: warm reviews for its new cars.
“At last, a decent midsize car from General Motors,” Automobile Magazine
said of a stylish new version of the Malibu. The new Cadillac CTS is “an
excellent luxury sport sedan,” raved Edmunds.com, which praised the more
powerful engines that G.M. has made available on the car. And in
January, the Saturn Aura was named the North American Car of the Year by
This is all a sharp contrast to six years ago, when the legendary
product expert Robert A. Lutz arrived at G.M. to take charge of vehicle
development. Back then, the company was selling cars and trucks that he
admits — in his typical blunt-talking fashion — he never would have
parked in his vast personal garage.
Now, he says, G.M.’s new models can be compared to the best that the
company’s Japanese and German competitors have to offer.
The question is, Will enough consumers compare them — and choose G.M.?
Despite Mr. Lutz’s efforts, G.M. still has a hard time getting on
drivers’ shopping lists. Its market share, close to 28 percent when Mr.
Lutz arrived, has dropped to just under 24 percent, in part because G.M.
has pulled back on unprofitable sales to rental car companies.
But there are other factors holding G.M. back, too, that may be hard to
overcome despite the improved lineup of cars.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is changing the way consumers think about
its cars. The idea that G.M.’s cars have been a disaster, even if the
trucks were passable, “has been so ingrained, and so hard to change,”
Mr. Lutz said.
Even he acknowledges that this may take another generation of vehicles
to change, meaning well into the next decade — a long time for a company
that has lost billions of dollars in recent years and whose competitors
keep getting better, too.
“We have to be patient,” Mr. Lutz said. “It took us 25 years to work our
way to where we were, and we can’t expect that to change in a year or 18
months.” Every well-received G.M. model helps to “eradicate those past
perceptions,” he said.
Who’s to blame for those perceptions? Fingers are pointed in all directions.
Mr. Lutz cites the skeptical automotive media, gathered en masse today
for the start of press days for the Los Angeles Auto Show.
G.M.’s dealers, for their part, have long complained that the company
did not invest enough in advertising (though ads for the new Malibu seem
to be everywhere, from World Series telecasts to episodes of “The Next
Great American Band”).
“You have to get people into the showroom, and that’s a very hard thing
to do, especially with the economy,” said Ed Schoenthaler, owner of
Crossroads Chevrolet Buick in West Chicago, Ill.
Mr. Schoenthaler and other G.M. dealers say they are pleased with G.M.’s
current lineup. But the public, he said, “has no idea how good these
Some consumers still feel burned by their past experiences with American
automobiles. Faced with numerous choices of vehicles whose quality is
more consistent, as measured by J. D. Power & Associates and Consumer
Reports, fewer buyers want to take a risk, as G.M.’s declining market
Yvette Lazo, a special education teacher from Miami, said she had owned
Chevrolets and Cadillacs but gave up on G.M. after a series of problems,
including a dashboard that fell forward into the passenger compartment
and a moon roof that came unglued.
Since then, the Lazos’ last six cars have been Toyotas. “We don’t need
to be going to the shop all the time. There were always these things
that irked you,” said Mrs. Lazo, 33, who gets a new model every two years.
For the Malibu and the CTS, G.M. made a particular effort to improve the
interiors, which have “always been an area of extreme G.M. weakness,”
Mr. Lutz said.
G.M. even released photos of the Malibu’s two-toned interior before it
showed the exterior, which has a much more sporty and curved look than
the previous version.
“I think we can look everybody in the eye and say, ‘Nobody in the planet
makes a better midsize car than that,’” Mr. Lutz said.
But each model faces formidable competitors.
For the Malibu, it is the latest version of the Honda Accord, also fresh
to the market. Ron Pinelli, the president of Autodata, an industry
statistics firm in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., prefers it to the Malibu. “The
new Accord is all there,” he said.
The CTS must combat a resurgent Mercedes-Benz, as well as BMW, whose
sales are up this year while Cadillac’s have fallen. Mr. Pinelli says he
is impressed by the CTS, calling it “awesome.”
Unlike the foreign brands, whose heritage has been honed over
generations in Europe and the United States, G.M. must “earn their way
back into the hearts and minds of the American consumer,” he said. “You
have to have great products, you have to have the advertising, and the
deal has to be there.”
This time, both Malibu and CTS are receiving the kind of relentless
advertising push that Toyota regularly gives to its new cars and trucks.
For instance, G.M. has kicked off a four-month $100 million advertising
campaign for Malibu, hoping primarily to create awareness that an
American company offers a car that can compete with Japanese models,
said Mark LaNeve, G.M.’s vice president for sales and marketing.
G.M. did not do that with a car Mr. Lutz hoped would be one of the
company’s stars, the Saturn Aura sedan. It has not said how much it
devoted to the Aura, but Mr. LaNeve acknowledged to the trade
publication Advertising Age that G.M. “could have spent a few more dollars.”
The model’s sales have stumbled this year, though it was named car of
the year by journalists at the North American International Auto Show in
Other G.M. cars have suffered similar fates. Mr. Lutz was disappointed
at the tepid reception among consumers for some G.M. models, like the
Buick Lucerne, a large family car introduced in 2006.
It received good reviews — and good exposure, ending up as a prize on
the Martha Stewart edition of “The Apprentice” on NBC. But Lucerne sales
are down 14.5 percent this year. Likewise, sales of one of Mr. Lutz’s
earlier favorites, the Pontiac Solstice sports car, have dropped 17.5
percent from 2006, despite a strong start.
G.M.’s biggest problem is erratic quality, said Jake Fisher, a senior
automotive engineer with Consumer Reports. Though Buick scored better
than average in the magazine’s recent quality survey, G.M.’s seven other
brands were listed as subpar. Cadillac ranked third from last among the
two dozen brands measured.
“G.M.’s making really nice cars,” he said, “but they’re losing in
Another issue, analysts say, is G.M.’s proliferation of brands. Mr.
LaNeve says its eight brands are an advantage. But Mr. Pinelli said the
choices simply make it harder for individual cars to get attention.
G.M.’s sales are overwhelmingly dominated by Chevrolet. It has about 14
percent of the car market, making it larger than all of Chrysler, and
only slightly smaller than the market share held by Ford and Toyota in
the United States.
Most of G.M.’s other brands capture two points or less of the American
Even so, G.M. has been helped by good sales from its latest sport
utilities, as well as the Buick Enclave, a crossover vehicle with S.U.V.
features but carlike handling. Likewise, G.M.’s newest pickup trucks
sold well when they reached the market, with the Chevrolet Silverado
often outselling the Ford F-series on a monthly basis. The F-series will
not be overhauled until next year.
But S.U.V.’s and pickups are fast losing popularity in the face of
$3-a-gallon gasoline, while the car market, dominated by foreign
manufacturers, is growing.
Mr. Lutz sees hope in the fact that the company seems to have stabilized
at just under 24 percent, versus the 28 percent that executives vowed to
attain when he first arrived, even donning lapel pins with the number.
“Twenty-four is the new 28,” Mr. Lutz declared, given the company’s
decision to pull back on rental car sales and huge incentives, as well
as the intense industry competition.
Long term, G.M. executives know the company needs to cloak itself in the
same green mantle that Toyota enjoys, thanks primarily to the
hybrid-electric Toyota Prius.
At Los Angeles, G.M. is showing hybrid versions of the Silverado and the
Malibu. It is also promoting the Chevrolet Volt, a sedan it plans to
begin building around 2010.
If all its new models succeed, and if G.M. can stabilize and perhaps
increase its market share, Mr. Lutz said he would give himself a grade
At Chrysler, Mr. Lutz helped transform the company’s image during the
1990s through vehicles like the Dodge Viper and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Then, consumers were rooting for the feisty underdog to succeed. That
sympathy isn’t there this time, he said.
“It’s been tougher than I thought it would be,” he said.