At the moment the news broke, I had written two words of a review of the Pontiac
G6: "Dump Lutz."
On Monday morning, the news came that General Motors North America Chairman
Robert Lutz and Group Vice President Gary Cowger were "relinquishing" their
duties with GM North America to assume unspecified roles in GM's global product
development and manufacturing efforts compared with the high-profile role
Lutz has occupied, this is like "extraordinary rendition" to Pakistan.
Although GM's chairman and chief executive is Rick Wagoner, Bob Lutz also
known as "Maximum Bob" has been the point man for GM policy and future product
design, the Great White-Haired Father, the Man with the Golden Gut, the auto
industry's most quotable and charismatic executive in a town where charisma
is scarcer than banana trees.
In his 3 1/2 -year tenure, GM has lost something like 3 percentage points of
market share. I was about to make the case that, given GM's current China
North American market share dropping to its lowest point in decades, and
market analysts, sensing no real momentum for reform within the company,
the company's bond ratings to near-junk status someone's head ought to roll,
and the most likely candidate would be the numinous white noggin of Lutz.
Cashiering Lutz, I would have argued, would be a positive sign for the street's
analysts that the company is serious about accountability. Indeed, it had to
be Lutz, for symbolic reasons that go beyond the car business. Of course, the
responsibility is not solely his, but the culture of executive exoneration
has to end somewhere, and it's not going to be in Washington, D.C.
However, given recent events, I have to revise my story. To wit: Dump Wagoner.
It was Lutz, after all, who candidly averred at a Morgan Stanley meeting last
month that GM might have to phase out some of its product lines, even using
the word "damaged" to describe Pontiac and Buick. In the ensuing furor, Lutz
claimed his remarks were taken out of context and over-hyped by the
media, like that scandal rag Automotive News.
Wagoner memo to Lutz: Stop making sense.
GM is a morass of a business case, but one thing seems clear enough, and Lutz's
mistake was to state the obvious and then recant: The company's multiplicity
of divisions and models is turning into a circular firing squad. How can four
nearly identical minivans one each for Pontiac, Buick, Chevrolet and Saturn
be anything but a waste of resources? Ditto the Four Horsemen of Suburbia,
the Buick Rainier, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy and Saab 9-7X. How does
the Pontiac Montana minivan square with Pontiac as the "Excitement" division?
Why, exactly, is GMC on this Earth?
For a company so utterly devoted to each of its 11 brands counting offshore
badges such as Opel, Holden, Vauxhall the overarching strategy seems to be
to flatten the distinctiveness out of all of them in the name of global
Take Saab, poor Saab. The new 9-3s will be built in Russelsheim, Germany,
Opel Vectras. The 9-2X is a badge-engineered Subaru WRX. The 9-7X is a Chevy
Trailblazer built in the Nordic enclave of Moraine, Ohio.
Other recent Wagoner miscues:
GM utterly missed the boat on hybrid gas-electric technology and lobbied Congress
not to raise fuel-economy standards on the grounds that meeting higher standards
would divert funds from critical research in the ultimate propulsion technology,
hydrogen fuel cells an argument that, shall we say, lacks authenticity. Today,
GM has no hybrids of consequence on the street, while rivals Toyota and Honda
are selling as many as they can build.
As part of a product reorganization, GM announced last month that it would
speed up development of new SUVs and trucks in the pipeline and slow-walk
of rear-wheel-drive Zeta car projects. So, let's see: At a time when SUV sales
are cliff-diving, GM proposes to speed up big SUV development and 86 the
rear-drive future products?
This reallocation of deck chairs seems pointless when the real problem is the
massive overhead of a company that cannot find the will to downsize. Capitalism,
remember, is creative destruction.
However, the best case for a putsch in GM's Renaissance Center offices is this:
The cars aren't selling.
Honestly, it takes some sort of perverse genius to make the Grand Am, the car
the Pontiac G6 replaces, look like a showroom winner, but the G6 is selling
at about half the volume of the unloved and unlovely Grand Am, which dates
to the 1980s. Even a multimillion-dollar giveaway of G6s on "Oprah" in September
wasn't enough to fire up sales of this car.
Six months into its life, the G6 has thousands of dollars on its nose and
are calling it a flop. Last month, Pontiac offered more incentive money as
a percentage of MSRP than any other brand, a full 16%, according to Edmunds.com.
The G6 is not an awful car. It's entirely adequate. But plainly, adequate is
not nearly enough.
Exterior styling: The G6 sedan, based on the same stretched-wheelbase platform
as the Malibu Maxx, has its wheels in the right place, nicely quadratic and
corner-wise. There are a few odd proportions that add up to a kind of visual
consternation: The car's front tapers around the headlamps like a school eraser;
the rear deck is more a rear bustle, with an arm's length of sheet metal over
the rear wheel wells; and wheels and tires themselves seem small when, at 17
inches in the GT package, they aren't really.
Meanwhile, the detailing of the bodywork makes the skin of the car look
I wonder how many buyers look at this car and wonder what is behind the
Interior styling: The GT comes with comfortable leather-lined bucket seats,
nicely bolstered with heaters. I like the soft grip on the hand brake. That
exhausts my praise for the interior.
The center console is a plastic fantastic with the now-familiar stacked boxes
of the audio head and climate controls, and we know what comes with familiarity.
This is pretty much a style-free zone in a larger moor of monochromatic plastic
The G6 does have a couple of fun features, both optional: an oversized moon
roof that folds back in sections so that, lined up on the roof, the car looks
solar-powered; and a remote starting function.
Some options are less fun: Side-impact and curtain air bags, four-wheel anti-lock
brakes and traction control are all cost-extra options on the base model.
Performance: The GT model I drove had a 3.5-liter iron-block V6 under the hood,
good for 200 horsepower and no surprises at all. And though I can't believe
I'm writing this sentence in 2005 this pushrod six is mated to a four-speed
automatic transmission. It is because of this powertrain that the phrase "thrashy
and unrefined" has become the hackneyed clichι that it has.
The electric steering is numb and oddly weighted. Though I thought the ride
was very nice, the handling is pushier than a mortgage-refinance telemarketer.
The car has zero appetite for hard driving. You want excitement from the
division? Try to get this thing to turn in a sharp corner.
This is an uncompetitive product, an assertion borne out not by my say-so but
by sales numbers. When ballclubs have losing records, players and coaches and
managers get their walking papers.
At GM, it's time to sweep the dugout.
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