General Motors Corp.'s reinvention is under way. But does anyone have the answer to this inquiry: Which way is it going?
It's hard to tell, even for some of the company's closest observers.
GM rolls into 2001 with several key new products - including the quirky Pontiac Aztek - that finally address the shortcomings of some divisions. But market share continues to decline, "brand management" increasingly is under fire, reaction to several key new products - including Aztek - is mixed and each division continues to have a weakness in some product segment.
Criticized for years for its bland designs and lethargic business operations, at least the automaker can claim that all its peaks and valleys are causing discussion. And that's definitely what people are doing when they catch an eyeful of the latest creations from GM's design studios. It's almost as if GM is overreacting to years of passionless cars and trucks, especially with the on-sale Pontiac Aztek and the '02 Cadillac Escalade, due out in January.
Aztek, for instance, looks like it should be driving alongside the Sea of Tranquility rather than, say, the Pacific Ocean.
From an overall exterior standpoint, Aztek seems like an unfinished thought, an oddly shaped cake that needs some more time in the oven. Yet, GM is making the moon-buggy wannabe the epitome of its cross-divisional design daring.
There's no denying Aztek's exterior looks wild. But the driving experience isn't. The overburdened 3.4L OHV V-6 is just that, and the ride makes you feel as though you've bought the Porky Pig-suspension option.
But Aztek doesn't deserve only jabs. It's loaded with nifty gizmos. There's a center console that can be removed and used as a cooler. And a rear tray that slides out of the tailgate to ease loading and unloading of groceries and gear. The $195 optional camping package is a steal: a tent attaches to the car near the C-pillar, and extends over the open hatchback. A built-in pump inflates a 2-person air mattress, turning the rear seat and cargo area into a cozy, portable hotel room.
Furthermore, a recent drive around metro Detroit in an Aztek produced an incredible amount of interest from every Echo Boomer we happened upon. It has been years since GM has made something that teenagers find desirable - much less a tarted-up minivan. If GM can continue to lure a younger audience with Aztek, even if annual sales are under 70,000, it may be on its way to actually connecting with a younger buyer.
The designing madness doesn't stop with Pontiac, which always has been known for its attention-grabbing image, anyway. Cadillac, of all automakers, finally has spruced up its only truck so that it's not an overpriced clone of the GMC Yukon Denali.
The '02 Escalade has headlamps, logos and other features that are the size of its owners' egos - and wallets. The overblown look represents the gaudy side of Cadillac's past and is inappropriate for a luxury make. There also should be some concern that the design of the Evoq concept car has not transitioned well to any other vehicle, including the Imaj concept and the forthcoming Catera.
But under the sheetmetal and inside, GM again excels by providing Cadillac with a classy dashboard appearance and with a beefy 6L OHV V-8 that churns out a Lincoln Navigator-thrashing 345 hp. There's also GM's first application of stability control for an SUV and the well-respected GMT800 platform underpinning it all. Not bad, and at least a couple of reasons to buy the Caddy rather than a Yukon Denali.
The '02 Oldsmobile Bravada also will make an early 2001 debut. It has taken the appearance of an Asian-made sport/utility vehicle (SUV), with its rounded tail and squinting headlights. Yes, Honda comes to mind. And that may be good as Olds is trying (albeit half-heartedly, some say) to appeal to import buyers. The sport-ute also is bigger and available in rear- or four-wheel-drive models, which makes it even more enticing to West Coast and Southern shoppers.
And then there's the promise of GM's all-new 4.2L inline 6-cyl., strengthening the appeal (as well as for the '02 Chevy Blazer and GMC Envoy platform mates). For Bravada, though, one might wonder if it's enough to increase sales compared to its predecessor by some 20,000 units annually, as the automaker is claiming it will.
Continuing with the truck onslaught, Silverado/Sierra HD pickups, Yukon Denali, Yukon XL Denali and Sierra are much better executions of design tactics and product development. There are a mind-boggling 32 heavy-duty pickup models, including three-quarter-ton and 1-ton regular cabs, 4-door extended cabs and crew cabs. A totally new Duramax 6.6L V-8 engine sets a new industry standard for passenger-vehicle diesels. There's also an optional hulking 8.1L OHV V-8 gas engine. Built on GM's celebrated Big Block V-8 engine foundation, nearly 80% of its parts are new.
The pickups will sell like gangbusters - even if the sheetmetal differs only slightly from the light-duty brethren - and are a tribute to the automaker's technical advances. Silverado/Sierra HD are more than worthy - if not superior - competitors to Ford's SuperDuty. But with GM's brand-management strategy, the automaker finds itself spending twice as much money for marketing and advertising to get about the same amount of sales.
Buick and Saturn finally will expand from car-exclusive lineups, although their respective car-based crossover SUVs will be '02 models. Both divisions, however, need a serious excitement injection; if it doesn't happen with the SUVs, trouble looms, particularly for Buick. There's not much detail yet about Saturn's SUV (showing it this month at the Miami auto show), but it's not truck-based.
Meanwhile, Buick's Rendezvous is a version of the U-van, just like the Aztek, which must have Buick-ites more than a little nervous.
As far as '01 goes, there's not much activity to anticipate on the car side of GM's stable; Chevy has the high-performance Corvette Z06 (probably the best Corvette ever) and Pontiac's doing away with the Sunfire convertible. Some action should be taken to lift sales of Edsel-like Saturn L-Series and Olds Intrigue.
But most of GM's pass-car range - with a few exceptions, notably the all-new for '01 Aurora already on sale - is a veritable snore. (Oldsmobile, too, is out of time and out of excuses; it needs a strong sales year to reflect its reputable product lineup. If Olds is a failure, then so is brand management - and both should be abolished.
As usual, GM's saying "wait" for better new cars. This time, essentially it's "wait for '02."
Trucks aren't for everybody, and the car lines remain also-rans. Too many brands, not enough exciting product means something's gotta give. Aztek's weirdness might finally make a connection with the younger crowd, though.