Posted by: David Welch on February 10, 2009
The boo birds are out. A day after General Motors announced that its car guy, Bob Lutz, is retiring the harsh comments lined up on our website like banks at the Treasury Department. Surely, GM’s 76-year-old car guy is a lightning rod. Over his 46 years, he has infuriated bosses at several car companies, crossed swords with environmentalists and chagrined a few of his P.R. apparatchiks with his from-the-hip commentary.
Critics are quick to say that GM still has plenty of cars that aren’t selling. Models like the Pontiac G6 were sub-par the day it hit the street. The Saturn Aura sedan is an excellent car. But it doesn’t get much attention from consumers. Other brands like Hummer and Saab haven’t had a hit in years, if ever in Saab’s case.
The simplistic view is to lay this at Lutz’s feet. But let’s not be so hasty. If GM has losers in its lineup, that’s more an indictment of the company’s business model than Lutz’s ability to get a good car through the system. As I point out in this story, for every great Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac CTS, GM has a slew of cars like the Aura, G6, Buick Lucerne and current Chevy Equinox that don’t sell much for one reason or another. Actually, there are two big ones that would make anyone’s record in that job spotty. Either GM couldn’t afford to put the best car forward due to financial constraints or the brand selling the car is sullied beyond repair. The two reasons are intertwined.
The Saturn Aura won North American Car of the Year a couple of years ago. The Malibu won it a year later. But the Aura sold 1,400 copies in January, down 76% from a year ago. It has never been a big seller. The Buick LaCrosse was a nice enough car, but there was nothing breakthrough about it and even Tiger Woods couldn’t make that brand hip. Then there’s Cadillac’s stalled resurgence. Lutz floated plenty of ideas for the brand, with everything from the stunning Sixteen ultra-luxury concept to a small 3-series fighter that’s in the works. But without more cash, GM can’t get those cars to market anytime soon, if at all.
What’s the bottom line? Lutz brought GM much better design and interior work. He woke up many executives and middle managers to the fact that ‘good enough’ really isn’t good enough. Some of his really important models were hits. And he gets credit for marshalling the Chevy Volt electric car though GM’s hesitant C-suite. But in the end, no one could turn around a business model that seeks to feed eight brands with limited capital. Not when Toyota is feeding three with a much fatter budget. Judging Lutz’s legacy can only be done if you look where GM was when he arrived in September 2001. This was the company selling the Pontiac Aztek, a brick like the old Chevy Malibu and the Cadillac Catera. If the company does make it through its worst-ever crisis, Lutz will have laid some of the important stones in building a new foundation.