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Dan Neil reflects: Bob Lutz and me

February 10, 2009 |  6:17 pm

Lutz The news that Vice Chairman Bob Lutz is retiring from General Motors reminds me of that wonderful quote of Voltaire’s: “He was a great patriot, a humanitarian, a loyal friend -- provided, of course, that he really is dead.”

I’ve had the pleasure of spending some hours wreathed in the smoke from Lutz’s robusto cigars and, of course, I’ve followed his career closely. We’ve had some vigorous exchanges, dating back to when I was freelancing for the New York Times. In a review in that paper in 2003, I did my level best to drub the awful 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix, a car I called “clumsy and contrived” –- I also said it looked like it was wearing a Hitler mustache. Lutz, who had been trumpeting the Grand Prix as the precious spark of a new creative fire at Pontiac, demanded my head on a platter, Salome-like. And then we got into this weird colloquy about what did and did not constitute a front strut brace. It was wonderful.

My most infamous run-in with Lutz was occasioned by a review –- well, on reflection, a rant -– in this paper in 2006 about the Pontiac G6, which seemed then and now a small disaster of a car. At the time, the message out of GM was that the G6 was “Lutz’s car,” the first the company’s product czar really had a hand in. On the basis of that claim, I called for the cashiering of Lutz and/or GM Chairman Rick Wagoner. You can read the story here.

Thus quoteth I: “This is an uncompetitive product, an assertion borne out not by my say-so but by sales numbers. When ball clubs have losing records, players and coaches and managers get their walking papers. At GM, it’s time to sweep the dugout.”

That didn’t go over well, apparently. That week, GM pulled its national advertising out of the L.A. Times. To the credit of the editors then, the paper stood by the review and eventually GM’s advertising came back.

And yet, Lutz and I have always seemed to get along personally. We spent a fine evening together at Goodwood in 2005, arguing about global warming and the company’s disastrous pursuit of the LeMans championship. I met his utterly charming wife, and he mine. He has sent e-mails to compliment me on one turn of phrase or another. And no, I am not immune to the man’s charisma.

These episodes came flooding back to me in January, while Lutz and I were exchanging e-mails about a story I was working on about Chrysler, where he was once president. The e-mails were off the record; however, I don’t think Lutz would mind my revealing his remark that he thought the new 2010 Buick LaCrosse was the best car he’d ever “guided.” Then I saw the car at the Detroit Auto Show. The exterior is damn peculiar, with a concave hood profile -– conveying in its geometry the very opposite of a “power dome” hood –- and a fussy lateral accent line. I’m reserving judgment until I get hold of it in the real world, but the first impression is that it’s a fairly nice car wrapped in someone’s anxiety. In any event, I couldn’t imagine why Lutz –- with a portfolio of accomplishment reaching back many decades –- would declare the LaCrosse his career-defining car.

And then it dawned on me. Lutz’s job has always been to work the refs. Like a basketball coach harassing referees about close calls and missed fouls, Lutz uses his charm, his authority and his cigar-gnashing persona –- and if none of that works, his scorn -- to control and orient criticism of the cars and company. Precisely as he did with the Grand Prix and later with the G6, Lutz is shilling wildly for the new LaCrosse, leveraging his stature to moderate the reception of the car, knowing that for most auto journalists challenging Lutz is like interrogating one of the granite heads on Mount Rushmore.

This is the car industry’s version of the Great Man syndrome, whereby political reporters become enchanted with powerful politicians and go soft.

Obviously, it works. A quick survey of stories about Lutz in the industry press this morning comprises a study in moony adoration. He’s a real car guy, an ex-fighter jock, the last of the Mohicans, Howard Roark in Detroit’s morass of compromise, etc. Detroit has always been intensely patriarchal, and Lutz has emerged as the Great White Father of the American car industry.

Meanwhile, the man’s penchant for speaking candidly seems, in retrospect, pure guile. As far as I know, Lutz has never said anything in public that was not calibrated for a desired effect, including his remark last year that global warming was B.S. This allegedly unscripted remark sparked a furious debate in the car world that lasted a month and encouraged climate-change doubters to come out of their foxholes. The goalposts had been moved. Mission accomplished.

Lutz has made no secret of his low regard of the press, and there is no reason to think that I have somehow risen above that. He may like the way I write, but that doesn’t mean he thinks I know doodily about cars or the industry. So with fond remembrance and the certain knowledge that he couldn't care less, I offer my list of Lutz’s hits and misses at GM. Bombs away, Bob. Bombs away.

--Dan Neil

Photos by GM

HITS

2009 Cadillac CTS-V
Cadillac_ctsvWith 556 horsepower under its tented hood and a cross-wire grille that looks inspired by the maximum-security wing at Chino, the 2009 Cadillac CTS-V seems, well, sort of aggressive. Remember when Cadillacs were soft and pillowy and ambled around town in a kind of Vicodin haze? Remember when you felt like you needed to slip into supportive undergarments to drive one? Doesn't that seem a long time ago?

I cannot gauge whether the investment General Motors has put into this 191-mph monster makes good business sense. I understand that Cadillac is trying, and succeeding, to gain parity with German luxury brands and their high-performance divisions (BMW M, Mercedes-Benz AMG and Audi S). I further understand that these kinds of cars are halo products, bringing light and glory to the brand without necessarily returning a per-unit profit.

Yes, this is a Cadillac, and yes, the second-generation CTS launched last year was pre-engineered, so to speak, to handle the additional horsepower and ludicrous cornering loads the "V" modifications generate. But this car is night-and-day different from the regular CTS.

For starters, there is a 6.2-liter Corvette-ish engine under the hood, supercharged to within a hairy inch of its life. This engine does not produce a mellow flutter, a deep sonorous rumble, a seismic stirring like that of some distant underground fault. No. This engine screams like it's got its hand on the stove. It howls. It whines like the Season 1 DVD collection of "The View." Good Lord, somebody stop throwing those crows in the wood-chipper.

This is the fierce, brain-baking sound of a super-sports car. What's interesting to me is that, at some point, Cadillac development engineers were weighing the sound quality of the engine -- how raw do we want it, how refined? -- and decided, "Ah, what the hell, let's make it sound psychotic." Good choice.

Said sound is accompanied by a very rude, soccer-mob style shove in the back as all 551 pound-feet of torque catch either the flywheel or the torque converter (the car is equipped with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic).

From a dead stop, this car accelerates to 60 mph in about 4 seconds. One-two-three-four. From there it's a rapid and delirious elevator ride to 191 mph (top speed for the automatic is 175 mph)….

2009 Corvette ZR-1
2009_corvette_zr1If gas is our combustible heroin, cars like the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 are our big needles. This 638-hp, 205-mph, $105,000 affront to all that is good and decent and respectable, this angry strake of carbon fiber and aluminum, turns gasoline directly into moments of teary bliss. Let me tell you, it's one thing to mouth the pieties of alternatively fueled transportation -- hybrids, diesels, electrics. It's quite another to feel the arch-adrenaline of dinosaur-fueled horsepower and say, "Never again."

Some may wonder why badly bleeding General Motors would invest precious development dollars turning the already quite mental Corvette Z06 into this necromantic hypercar. Isn't the electric Volt the company's salvation?

Maybe. But because the ZR1 builds on the Corvette program -- the aluminum-and-balsa chassis is the same; the supercharged LS9 is a titanium-rod-and-crank version of the base pushrod V8 -- it represents a relatively small marketing outlay. And marketing is what it is. This car has appeared on every magazine cover from Motor Trend to Bass Masters Quarterly.

Having to get around in wooden, orphan-drawn carts, Future, it might be hard for you to appreciate what it's like to drive such a car. To begin with, in terms of comfort and usability, the ZR1 crushes comparable hypercars such as the Lamborghini Murcielago, the Porsche 911 GT2 and the Ferrari 599. To put four sets of golf clubs in those cars, as you can in the Corvette, you'd have to use a crowbar and a Sawz-All.

At around-town, light-throttle speeds, the ZR1 drives like a two-seat limousine. The cabin is comfortable and easy to enter and exit. The dual-mode magnetic rheologic dampers (don't ask) deliver a freakishly supple and smooth ride, like every road was paved that morning. It's downright unnatural. The ride compliance is especially notable given the obscenely oversized Michelin Sport Pilot tires hanging luridly out of the wheel wells(19-inchers in front and 20s in the rear).

With 320 pound-feet of torque at the flywheel at a breath off idle (1,000 rpm), the ZR1's engine is supremely tractable, quiet and refined around town. The close-ratio six-speed gearbox is slicker than a Glock soaked in KY jelly. The net of it is, then, that the ZR1 sacrifices very little to the war gods, not even fuel economy. You can stick the gearshift in sixth and get 20 mpg at highway speeds.

But you wouldn't do that, Future, oh no. And neither would we.

What you would do is line up the ZR1 on some empty straight of tarmac and nail the throttle. To do so is to throw yourself on a horsepower grenade. Even with traction control engaged, the wheel spin is enough to cause the ZR1 to sidestep in a cloud of Michelin-flavored smoke and thunder. A half-second later, the tires hook up and you're drowning in your own spit and hallucinating speed. In less than four heartbeats (3.4 seconds), you've gone through 60 mph and you're grabbing second gear…

2007 Saturn Sky
Saturn_skyThe Saturn Sky — the celestially seasoned version of the Pontiac Solstice roadster — reminds us that there is no idea so good that GM won't toss it in a burlap sack and beat it with reeds. Such a notion was the Saturn Corp. Set up in the pastoral Podunk of Spring Hill, Tenn., in the late 1980s, Saturn was supposed to be anodyne to all things wrong with Detroit. At a time when GM's other divisions shared more DNA than the Habsburgs, Saturn was a fresh-slate approach to car building, with its own cars, reflecting its own engineering and design philosophy. It had its own customer-focused, no-haggle retail environment, inviting you to join the "Saturn family," with all the podpeople overtones the phrases implies.

Saturn was all that, for about five minutes. Then the company began its slow spiral into GM's corporate gravity well. No vehicle better exemplifies Saturn's rescinded autonomy than the Relay minivan, a re-badged version of the Chevy Uplander/Pontiac SV6/Buick Terraza. That's so GM orthodox it's practically Hasidic.

But now, with the release of the Saturn Sky, GM is unveiling a new orbital path for the Ringed Planet. Forget independence and second-channel thinking. Henceforth, the Saturn brand will stand for a better class of product redundancy.

Compared to its clonal sibling the Pontiac Solstice, the Saturn Sky is more likable in every direction. The Sky's exterior styling, with the Corvette-like saber scars on its cheeks, the beveled, refractory chrome accents all around and other visual wickedness, has a honed and hardened raciness the slightly edemic Solstice doesn't. It's no coincidence that the Sky's styling is reminiscent of the old Opel Speedster, since the Sky — styled in GM's Coventry, England, studio — will be sold overseas as the Opel GT.

Likewise, the Sky's interior looks and feels more polished and sophisticated, with gloss-black surfacing on the central console ("piano" black, if you make your pianos from molded plastic resin) and e-brake lever, and brushed alloy trim on the shift console and door handles. The upgrading extends to the standard equipment list, with the Sky offering air-conditioning, projector head lamps, anti-lock brakes, cruise control, power accessories, keyless entry and lots of other cost-extra items on the Solstice's order list. The Sky costs about three grand more than the base Solstice and weighs 73 pounds more. Both penny and pound penalties seem worth it.

Most perplexing — especially if you're a Pontiac dealer — is that the Sky drives better. … For a little corporate cupcake, the Sky is capable of some significant hard driving. The steering is sharp, taut and full of subtle feedbacks from the asphalt. The cornering grip — thanks mainly to the big Goodyears on the corners — is reliable and easy to access. With its slightly nose-heavy weight distribution, the Sky can be coaxed into nice, progressive tail-sliding behavior that can be nulled out with a dab of throttle and counter steer.…

So it might seem a rude question: Why is this car a Saturn? Why does this brand need a hot roadster that actually out-Solstices the Pontiac? Even more impertinent: Why will Saturn get the Sky Red Line, a version of the Pontiac Solstice GXP, the turbocharged, 260-hp piece of road ordnance? And while I'm asking, I'd be interested in hearing the corporate strategy behind the Saturn Aura. This is a handsome variant of the Pontiac G6, only equipped with bigger engines, a trick new six-speed manumatic transmission (optional), and higher levels of trim. Cannibalism, anyone?....

2007 Saturn Aura
Saturn_auraCar companies are like baseball teams. They love home runs. They need base hits.

For most of Saturn's 16-year-career, it might as well have been swinging a canoe paddle. But things are definitely turning around at GM's Tennessee-based expansion team. In the space of a year, Saturn has connected twice: First with the Sky, a badge-job on the Pontiac Solstice roadster that handily outpoints the Pontiac in styling and interior élan. And now the Saturn Aura, a roundly agreeable, athletic mid-size sedan that — how to say? — fills out its pinstripes nicely. How's that for metaphor abuse?

It's not as if GM has reinvented the game. The Aura is a fairly programmatic GM product, a knitting together of many of its far-flung resources. It's just better knitting. The stamped-steel bones of the car are GM's German-engineered Epsilon platform — a mid-size, front-drive — which sees service under the Pontiac G6, the Chevrolet Malibu/Maxx, Saab 9-3 and the Opel Vectra, built in Germany and England for European markets. The Aura's handsomely machined surfaces, harmonious lines and general conformation are owed to Opel's styling department, and the first impression when you see the car is that a German sedan has sneaked off the boat. Especially in XR trim — with its turbine-like, 18-inch alloy wheels — the Aura actually looks pretty posh and sophisticated, with subtle but vital metal highlights glowing around the windows and the grille, and haute-tech LED tail lamps. Amazing, considering this car replaces the L-series, whose styling was crueler than cosmetic animal testing.

What's different with the Aura is execution — exkoosion, as my Little League baseball coach would say. For one thing, there isn't much evidence of cost-whittling in the Aura. Actually, the car puts up a fine argument on paper. The base model XE, powered by a 3.5-liter, 224-hp overhead-valve V6 with a four-speed automatic, retails for $20,595, and comes competitively equipped with front, side and air-curtain air bags, decent MP3-capable stereo and power accessories. The car runs on regular gas and returns 20/30 mpg, city/highway.


I do wish, however, that stability control were standard on all models. Ask what's the difference between a home run and a well-stroked double? Stuff like that.

If I may address myself to the GM hive brain, I have a question: What took so long? Anyone who has ever rented a car in Europe knows that Opel (GM's European division) builds taut, serious cars with the everyday athleticism that European drivers expect (though, typically, with smaller engines). With the Aura, all those sensations are here: the heavy, positive feel in the steering, the augured-down suspension (struts in front, multi-links in the rear), the level cornering, the firm and supportive seats. This Euro-tactility extends down to the smallest things, such as the stiff, well-secured feel of the gearshift in the gate. As compared to the Saturn Vue, the gearshift for which feels like a wooden spoon rattling around in an empty bowl…."

MISSES

2008 Buick Enclave
Buick_enclaveOn the outside, the Enclave subscribes to the squirrel school of design, in that it's fascinated with bright, shiny objects. The front corners of the car are chandeliered with large headlight assemblies, in which the projector beam lenses are surrounded by fetching, cobalt-blue rings. There's the suggestion of traditional Buick portholes in the chromic detailing on the hood. And there's the can't-miss-it audacity of the waterfall grille, which may or may not remind you of a pool-skimmer, depending on your state of mind.

At 201.8 inches long and 72.2 inches high, the Enclave is a big vehicle, and it's a credit to the designers that they have managed to prettify this glorified school bus as well as they have. They have roped the fenders in large, muscular swells and lowered the hood line to give the Enclave a forward-leaning energy. I would not call it beautiful, but I think it has enough reckless dynamism to be at least interesting. Ten years from now, we'll look at the Enclave and wonder what they were smoking, but for now, fine.

Buick has been drumming the phrase QuietTuning into our collective heads for a few years now, and the Enclave makes it real. This is a surreally hushed cabin that manages to all but mute the idling of the 3.6-liter V6. At highway speeds, the Enclave sails along in a great galloping whisper with just the barest runnels of wind turbulence wrapping around the A-pillars. The body structure is stiff, quiet and well isolated from the road. You'd have to give the Enclave top marks for ride refinement.

The converse is that this is a fairly numb and uninteresting driver. The biggest problem is its mass: The front-wheel drive Enclave is 4,780 pounds (with all-wheel drive, a wheel-bending 4,985 pounds). The six-speed transmission's economizing shift logic makes the Enclave a little reluctant at mid-throttle, refusing to kick down into a lower gear without a hard kick in the slats. This was a particular bother as I was driving up the hill to my house.…

2006 Chevy HHR

Chevy_hhr In its search for fresh, edgy attitude that will resonate with Generation iPod, Chevy has turned, inevitably, to the Truman administration. The styling of the HHR -– it stands for “Heritage High Roof” –- is inspired, so they tell me, by the 1949 Chevy Suburban. One must be particular in these matters, since Plymouth and Dodge built Suburbans in those years too.

This is a most curious source of nostalgia, if indeed it is, since most kids in the 18-to-30 age bracket –- the happy hunting grounds for a $20,000 crossover van -– wouldn’t know a ‘49 Chevy Suburban if they had carnal knowledge of one. Tell the truth, I’m a little hazy on it too. I mean, I could probably pick one out of a police lineup, but this vehicle -– this set of styling semantics -– isn’t exactly cultural bedrock. In this respect, the HHR has little in common with retro riffs like the VW New Beetle, the Ford Thunderbird, BMW Mini, all based on universally recognized automotive icons that ring more bells than the Salvation Army’s kettle tenders.

If you reverse engineer the styling of the HHR, to discern what sort of sensibility signed off on it, you would have to conclude that person is older, a lifetime car enthusiast, even an expert, for whom the ‘49 Sub is not at all esoteric but as familiar as Smoot-Hawley is to Milton Friedman. And, given the popularity of this model in the hermetic culture of hot rodding, you’d be right to conclude that person is a bit of a performance geek.

Taken a step further, considering the exceptional headroom of the HHR, you’d be right to conclude that person is also very tall.

Just call me Poirot. The man behind the HHR is none other than the very tall and snowcapped 73-year-old classic-car enthusiast Robert Lutz, vice chairman of General Motors and the whip hand over the styling department.

The trouble is, outside of lifetime subscribers to Hot Rod magazine, the HHR doesn’t remind anybody of anything except the Chrysler PT Cruiser, thus the unfortunate and irresistible sobriquet “Me Too Cruiser.” Lutz has scorned the comparison. His case is somewhat weakened by the fact that the man who led the design for the PT Cruiser, Bryan Nesbitt, also held the pen for the HHR.…

There is a Detroit-cloistered quality to the HHR, and not simply because it is such a pointed response to a crosstown rival. The HHR wants to capitalize on a sentiment –- a longing for the rockin’ good times on Woodward Avenue? –- that just doesn’t exist in large measure in the mass market. In terms of car culture, the HHR’s bid for nostalgia has no antecedent, no referent, no master narrative. It is all echo and no sound.…

Even with its iPod connections, the HHR couldn’t hit hip with a hand grenade. And yet, I suspect it will do all right in the market for a year or two. I can easily imagine people in their 50s and 60s picking up the car because of its practical value and because it is essentially effortless to drive. It also gets very respectable gas mileage. But I also suspect it will have a high fatigue factor because, whether it means to or not, it imitates that which is inimitable. The past is not always prologue.

2006 Pontiac G6
Pontiac_g6The G6 is not an awful car. It’s entirely adequate. But plainly, adequate is not nearly enough.

Exterior styling: The G6 sedan, based on the same stretched-wheelbase platform as the Malibu Maxx, has its wheels in the right place, nicely quadratic and corner-wise. There are a few odd proportions that add up to a kind of visual consternation: The car’s front tapers around the headlamps like a school eraser; the rear deck is more a rear bustle, with an arm’s length of sheet metal over the rear wheel wells; and wheels and tires themselves seem small when, at 17 inches in the GT package, they aren’t really.

Meanwhile, the detailing of the bodywork makes the skin of the car look eggshell-thin. I wonder how many buyers look at this car and wonder what is behind the billboard?

Interior styling: The GT comes with comfortable leather-lined bucket seats, nicely bolstered with heaters. I like the soft grip on the hand brake. That exhausts my praise for the interior.

The center console is a plastic fantastic with the now-familiar stacked boxes of the audio head and climate controls, and we know what comes with familiarity. This is pretty much a style-free zone in a larger moor of monochromatic plastic and vinyl.

The G6 does have a couple of fun features, both optional: an oversized moon roof that folds back in sections so that, lined up on the roof, the car looks solar-powered; and a remote starting function.

Some options are less fun: Side-impact and curtain air bags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes and traction control are all cost-extra options on the base model.

Performance: The GT model I drove had a 3.5-liter iron-block V6 under the hood, good for 200 horsepower and no surprises at all. And –- though I can’t believe I’m writing this sentence in 2005 –- this pushrod six is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. It is because of this powertrain that the phrase “thrashy and unrefined” has become the hackneyed cliche that it has.

The electric steering is numb and oddly weighted. Though I thought the ride was very nice, the handling is pushier than a mortgage-refinance telemarketer. The car has zero appetite for hard driving. You want excitement from the “Excitement” division? Try to get this thing to turn in a sharp corner.

Bah…

2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid Chevy_tahoe_hybrid   

By way of a fantastic exertion of technology and human capital -- which I hereby honor and praise even as I question them as misallocated -- GM has managed to give one of its behemoth SUVs marginally better fuel economy. Here are the relevant data points: The two-mode hybrid Tahoe returns an EPA estimated fuel economy of 21 miles per gallon in the city, 22 mpg highway; the 4x4 version gets an even 20/20, city/highway. The company and its various choristers -- such as the Green Car Journal, which recently named the Tahoe Hybrid "Green Car of the Year" -- are pleased to point out that represents up to a 50% improvement of in-city fuel economy over the non-hybrid Tahoe.

The objectors have rebelled against the symbolism of the thing. It might be half-again better, but it's still an awful, blot-out-the-sun SUV. Isn't this like putting handlebar tassles on the wingtips of a 767 jet?

. . . . Could I ask some inconvenient questions?

First, what would the mileage of this vehicle be with all the improved aerodynamics, low-rolling resistance tires and aluminum body panels, yet without the fretful weight (and cost) of the hybrid system? What is the cost-benefit ratio of the hybrid system apart from these improvements? And shouldn't the improvements be standard issue?

It's hard to tell exactly what the "hybrid premium" is on the Tahoe Hybrid (MSRP of $50,490) but it looks to be, at a minimum, $8,000. That's a huge lump. One argument to celebrate this technology is that it could be mainstreamed into the hundreds of thousands of full-size trucks and SUVs GM sells. But how realistic is that? Does this super-low-volume program do more for corporate image than corporate average fuel economy?

What is this program's budget? How does it compare to GM's ad budget that crows about the program? The word is greenwashing.

Diesel?

Are we coming in at the middle of the play? Perhaps the problem with judging the Tahoe Hybrid harshly -- it does seem absurd on the face of it -- is that we don't know, or little appreciate, the larger plan at work. Perhaps GM means what it says when announcing that the company plans to electrify personal transportation, and has tackled the biggest challenge first: putting its most fuel-thirsty products on a gasoline diet. Could it be we're being cynical about a good-faith effort?

What really needs to be re-engineered, of course, is the consumer, who opts for these big, heavy-duty vehicles for personal transportation and light loading when smaller, lighter vehicles will do (I assure you, people, you don't need a Suburban to trailer your 300-pound dirt bikes). This is a contentious issue, since Americans feel they should be able to drive whatever they can afford, disregarding the fact that the sky -- and our collective debt of foreign oil -- is part of the public commons. The recent revision of CAFE standards helps, but there are plenty of people who regard any attempt to regulate the vehicle fleet as Kremlin-esque social engineering.

For now, we have this paradox, a fantastically fuel-efficient vehicle that's still a gas hog. A hybrid that's simultaneously good (promise) and bad (reality). Matters can only get more muddled when the Hybrid Hummer comes rolling out.

Photos:

Top: Bob Lutz, vice chairman of General Motors, speaks to members of the media after a GM unveiling event at the Detroit auto show last month. Credit: Fabrizio Costantini/Bloomberg News.

Bottom: Photos courtesy of GM.

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