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Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Reign of Lutz

A fantastic article has been written surveying the effect Bob Lutz has had on being essentially the product guru at General Motors. It's arguably the most powerful position in the American, and World, auto industry. Three years into it, Lutz's changes don't seem to be that substantial.

About a year before Lutz was hired as head of GM, I learned of him through various quotes attributed to him in automotive pieces written on the industry. I was fascinated by a man I thought was cutting edge, and at the same time very wise. He was quite a bit more conservative politically than I was, but I thought his beliefs on automobile products were very interesting and right on the mark. I even read his autobiography. The cars I felt he had had a hand in designing at Chrysler were to my eye, quite beautiful. Among them were the original Dodge Viper, the Plymouth Prowler, and the Dodge Intrepid. I felt even before learning of Lutz's existence, that Chrysler was creating the best looking cars of the Big 3, and perhaps of all manufacturers in the American market. They weren't by any means the most reliable, or the best driving, but they were the most asethetically daring. And they were very American, all the more strange considering Lutz is not an American at all, but Swiss. But seeing him in interviews on television, and learning something of the way he acted, he seemed to embody all those things of a classic American executive, that of a brash, tell it like it is conservative, who at the end of the day has fired someone and raised the stock price a dollar.

So that is why it is all the more surprising that I find his affect on GM to be somewhat of a failure. When GM hired him, I thought this would mean a turnaround for GM. GM, historically the greatest car company in America, and the world, and yet the most troubled in both lands.

Three years into his tenure, Lutz has produced or influenced, the Corvette C6, and the Cadillac STS. They look great. They sell to small markets.

He has helped or influenced the Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac G6. They are acceptable, but hardly the cars that can compete against the likes of Honda and Toyota's progeny.

He has created rebadged SUVs like the upcoming Pontiac Torrent. Also he has introduced SUV-esque Minivans for Saturn, Chevrolet, and Pontiac. To my eye, and to many others, they look terrible.

The only winners I see are of low volume, high quality. I see many C+ efforts, and I see many vehicles with longstanding problems that have not been corrected. There are still many SUVs at GM, and many cars, that have interiors from the 1980s, and have sheetmetal long overdue for an update.

I see General Motors like the broken Roman Empire. It is overextended, and its efforts are few and far between. Hiring Bob Lutz to fix it is like having Rome hire an old General to run things, a General whose past glories are long ago.

Lutz is in his mid-70s, travels to work by helicopter, and lives a lifestyle far different than most of GM's customers live. I have read he collects many exotic and rare European cars. These cars probably influenced Lutz to make positive changes to high end cars like the Corvette or STS. But they probably did not do much for the Pontiac G6.

GM still has the ancient Impala and Monte Carlo in its lineup. The new minivans it produces are problematic, evidence that whatever flaws that pervaded car planning in the past, still exist today. GM still makes too many different vehicles, for a small number of market niches. And it is still too dependent on SUVs, when future fuel crises are around the corner. High fuel consumption Corvettes are not the answer.

There is hope. The Chevrolet Cobalt is very consertatively done, but it is the first high quality small car GM has probably ever done. If there is a fuel crisis, people will drive it and be impressed. Also, plans to make Saturn essentially Opel America are right on the mark. Let GM take the place of VW in this country, with beautiful relatively inexpensive European vehicles for the masses.

But all in all I see a lot of problems with Lutz's time at GM. It's only been three years, the jury's out until at least three more have passed.

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