How GM killed a car in 8 days

August 23, 2009

How GM killed a car in 8 days

BY TOM WALSH
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

The mystery of the disappearing "Vue-ick" has auto industry folks flabbergasted.

Vue-ick is the moniker that automotive chuckleheads have coined for a short-lived compact Buick crossover design, derived from a Saturn Vue, that General Motors Co. recently declared it would build — but then decided to kill eight days later.

Was this a stunt, dreamed up to show that GM’s leaders are now good listeners who react rapidly to customer input?

It’s farfetched to think that GM would embarrass its product development chief, Tom Stephens, by sending him to Traverse City Aug. 6 to proclaim plans for the new Buick, including a plug-in electric version, if the intent was to pull the plug on the project on Aug. 14.

But it’s equally unthinkable, some auto experts say, that GM would undertake the lengthy and expensive process of designing, engineering and vetting a prototype for showing to 100 consumers, news media and analysts — as it did Aug. 10 and 11 — and then abandon the Vue-ick because of critical comments after those events.

Yet the latter scenario is pretty much what played out.

Remember, GM was a chaotic place during the year preceding its bankruptcy filing, as the Saturn, Hummer, Pontiac and Saab brands were dumped.

As GM’s top executives juggled multiple crises — a critical cash drain, angry bondholders, collapsing suppliers — they had to keep a cadence of future car and truck models coming.

Building a compact Buick crossover with a plug-in option had two things going for it:

 

  • GM had invested a ton of money into plug-in technology for a future Saturn Vue, a sister design of the Chevy Equinox and GM Terrain.

     

     

  • And the Buick brand desperately needed a product that might bring someone younger than 60 into Buick showrooms. Maybe a high-mileage compact vehicle with edgy new technology would do the trick.

     

    But trying to quickly dress up the Vue’s design to pass for a Buick didn’t fool the customers and pundits who panned the Vue-ick they were shown.

    GM’s top execs were happy with feedback they heard about two dozen other Cadillac, Chevy, Buick and GMC designs they showed off Aug. 10 and 11.

    But critics zinged the Vue-ick as another example of rebadging similar models across multiple brands, a bad habit that had caused the old GM lots of heartache over the years.

    Fritz Henderson, GM’s president and CEO since March, is said to be a blunt-spoken foe of rebadging. So when feedback from the Aug. 10-11 events labeled the Vue-ick as an obviously rebadged Saturn Vue, Henderson asked in internal e-mails whether GM should revisit plans for that model.

    That’s exactly what happened at the Aug. 14 meeting of GM’s executive committee, and the Vue-ick got the ziggy.

    It’s good that GM’s brain trust stopped the Vue-ick, as earlier bosses should have done with the homely Pontiac Aztec, GM’s first crossover in 2001.

    But now GM must get its product development house in order, to avert such embarrassing late vetoes in the future.

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