General Motors, we are told, is on its deathbed. The sort-of-iconoclastic Web site The Truth About Cars has an ongoing series called "GM Death Watch", which at this writing is up to installment #114. Editor Robert Farago comments: "[J]ust think what number Death Watch I'd be on if I'd begun chronicling this sad saga when it started in the 70s." And he's got a point there: the General has been circling ever closer to the drain for thirty years and more. Five years ago, I came up with this fairly-obvious point:

There are few things that General Motors needs right now so much as a line of cars that people will line up to buy without bothering to ask how much the rebates are. For years, GM has been falling back on highly-dubious principles of brand management, figuring that all they had to do was target the advertising correctly, and the targets would duly flock to the dealerships. It didn't take long for the rest of the world to figure out that this strategy was seriously flocked up; by now, even your Aunt Hazel and Uncle Elmer know that underneath it all, a Chevy is a Pontiac is a Buick and used to be an Oldsmobile. Cadillac, once the Standard of the World, has dwindled into a few trim bits here and there.

In the interim, GM has taken some positive steps. Perhaps the most important to the auto enthusiast is the recovery of Cadillac's lost mojo. The Evoq styling language has taken hold across the entire Cadillac car line — the Escalade truck is, well, something else entirely — and while the cars aren't really conventionally beautiful, they're almost impossible to ignore, an invaluable characteristic if you're trying to be noticed. And Caddy isn't shying away from the competition, either: they've figured out that to play in the big leagues, you have to come up with something that rivals the Germans (and the occasional Japanese), and while they haven't gotten all the fine points yet, they've made serious strides, the sort of moves that simply weren't imaginable from the Cadillac of the 1990s. The 2008 CTS, now making the show circuit, is the General's most serious assault on BMW's 3-series yet. My favorite 3-series alternative was, and is, the Infiniti G, at least partly due to the fact that the local Infiniti store lets me play with one when my I30 is in the shop; but the G is kinda snug, while the CTS seems actually closer to 5-series size — and I could probably wangle a CTS for a lot less than Infiniti is asking for an M.

Enthusiasts, though, are only part of the market, and not the biggest part either. If Chevrolet's series-hybrid Volt can come out on schedule — last I heard, three years before the battery technology is up to speed — GM will be able to out-green the Japanese. Which is only fair, since Honda's hybrids are plainly geared for performance rather than fuel economy, and Toyota's rep is largely unearned: the Looming Giant sold about 150,000 Priuses (Prii?) last year, but is planning this year to move some 200,000 copies of its humongous Tundra pickup, which is as much of a gas-guzzler as any other humongous pickup. If the plug-in stuff works on the Volt, the halo over the Prius will thin out so much only Hollywood exhibitionists will be able to see it. And unlike the Prius, the Volt looks pretty snazzy.

Still, there are a few things I can recommend to the Fourteenth Floor, if by some fluke they're reading:

  • Lose the damn four-speed automatics, fercryingoutloud. I have no inherent dislike for these critters — my last three cars have been so equipped — but they're perceived as being low-tech, and you can't afford to look low-tech, especially with the Volt on the way.

  • Work on those interiors. The Silverado was a giant step in the right direction, and the new CTS looks promising, but too many GM cars have too much obviously-cheap plastic, and the fact that Chrysler is generally worse doesn't allow you the luxury of complacency.

  • Hang tough against the UAW. If that means giving Gettelfinger the finger, so be it. Every $100 you don't have to spend on health care is $80 you can put into improving those interiors — and $20 you can stash in the bank for the next rainy day.

One of these days, I'll get around to similarly-oversimplified analyses of Ford and the Chrysler Group; depending on whom you believe, they may be in even worse shape.

The Vent

  16 March 2007

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 Copyright © 2007 by Charles G. Hill