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General Motors : Wrong Wheel Drive
By Robert Farago
April 12, 2007 1,584 Views
It was at the point where if you extrapolated that trend line out, you could
see where that trend line hit the ground.” No, GM Car Czar “Maximum” Bob
Lutz wasn’t referring to his employer or a bad flight in his L39 Albatros
combat jet. Maximum Bob was reflecting on his infamous “damaged brand”
assessment of Buick and Pontiac at the ’05 New York auto show. So how’s
tricks? "They're still not where we'd like them to be,” Lutz told the
Detroit Free Press, “but the vital signs have at least turned up.” In other
words, they’ve gone from flatline to comatose. Nice one Bob.
In the last two years, GM has unleashed (if that’s the right word) a slew of
models designed to defibrillate Buick and Pontiac. GM’s former “excitement”
division unveiled the badge engineered Torrent SUV and G5 coupe, the
Oprah-glorifying G6 (sedan, coupe and convertible) and the “My kingdom for a
trunk” Pontiac Solstice. Buick attempted to find a pulse with the Lacrosse,
Lucerne and Enclave.
When the Free Press pressed Lutz on the results of this product push, Lutz
admitted that both brands have seen sales declines and trotted out GM’s
excuse du jour: “cuts in rental fleet business.” Maximum Bob then insisted
that Buick’s and Pontiac’s new models have helped both brands “gain
Once again, Lutz is flying blind. Comparing ’05 to ’06, Buick’s total
production numbers sank 7.6 percent. In the same period, Pontiac production
slipped 6.7 percent. In the first quarter of this year, Buick sales are down
30.3 percent. Pontiac’s first quarter sales have faltered 6.7 percent. If
these brands are gaining traction, it’s in a distinctly backwards direction.
So, where do Buick and Pontiac go from here? Since he first assumed control
over the GM Empire’s product plans, Maximum Bob has touted “fun to drive”
rear-wheel-drive cars as The Second Coming of General Motors. Although only
one of Buick and Pontiac’s last seven models is RWD (the Solstice), each
brand was due to receive a brand new RWD model– until Tuesday.
That’s the day The Chicago Tribune reported that GM has suspended
development of its RWD automobiles. "We've pushed the pause button,” Maximum
Bob told journos. “It's no longer full speed ahead." MB’s mixed metaphors
highlight General Motors’ abject inability to stay ahead of the product
curve, or, if you prefer, get its shit together.
Maximum Bob revealed that the decision to stick with front-wheel-drive (FWD)
vehicles stems from proposed federal legislation that would mandate a 30
percent increase in automotive fuel efficiency by 2017. According to Lutz,
"We don't know how to get 30 percent better mileage from rear-wheel-drive
cars.” Which raises two questions: why not and this is news?
Instead of leaving it at that and heading home in his G5 (jet, not Pontiac),
Maximum Bob trotted out the same old foot dragging arguments GM's used since
the federal government first got in the CAFE business: consumer expense and
"you're killing me!" Without citing any internal or external studies, Lutz
claimed the new regs will cost GM an additional $5k per vehicle, which they’ll
have to pass on to the consumer. This, of course, is a bad thing.
"Rather than buy new, people would hang onto their old cars,” Lutz warned.
“We could eat the five thousand dollars, but that would put us out of
I won’t bother you with Maximum Bob’s ensuing remarks about CAFE credits and
global warming, which were about as factually accurate and politically
correct as Don Imus’ summation of the Rutgers women’s basketball team’s
hairstyles and freelance income. Suffice it to say, Lutz said GM has
postponed its final decision on whether or not to completely abandon RWD
cars until the U.S. government legislates CO2 emissions and revises CAFE
The implications of Maximum Bob’s remarks beggar belief: the world’s largest
automaker, a vast commercial enterprise that’s hemorrhaging both money and
market share, is taking a “wait and see” approach to new product
development. Privately, the new product line managers for Buick and Pontiac
(and Chevrolet, Hummer, Saab, Saturn, Cadillac and GMC) must be shaking
their heads in dismay, if not despair.
Now you could say that GM’s decision to kill– sorry “pause” its RWD program
is the right thing to do. You could also argue that continuing down the
wrong road is almost as stupid as choosing the wrong road in the first
place. And you’d almost be right.
The truth is GM’s Board of Bystanders pays the automaker’s executive
leadership tens of millions of dollars to make, at most, five critical
decisions per year. If their Car Czar got this one wrong– moving towards RWD
“fun” over front-wheel-drive frugality– what else have they screwed-up? I
could give you a list. For now, I’ll just say this: the worst is yet to