ACCESSIBLE, quotable GM product exec Bob Lutz manages to get semi-fawning press even after he's been put out to pasture. But you have to wonder if he's really as clueless as he seems. Back in February, he said he didn't know why GM's Saturn brand had flopped:
"We spent a huge bundle . . . giving Saturn an absolutely no-excuses product lineup, top to bottom. They had a better and fresher lineup than any GM division, and the sales just never materialized . . . we don't have . . . 10 years to figure it out and possibly turn it around."
I could've saved him the 10 years because it's obvious why Saturn flopped: The company had built a popular brand as a sort of feel-good anti-car (vaguely tractorlike, noisy, but made of semi-indestructible plastic by dedicated Tennessee workers) and, unique in nearly all of GM, actually reliable.
But then GM threw all this away and filled Saturn showrooms with cars designed to appeal to totally different buyers: rebadged mainstream Opels. They were OK, but overstyled and not so reliable. End of explanation.
Now, the Washington Post has paraphrased Lutz on the importance of the Prius to Toyota:
"Lutz sees several reasons for Toyota's ascendancy, none more important than becoming the darling of media analysts and environmentalists in the wake of its seminal hybrid, the Prius . . .
"In early 2006 - 'much too late,' he acknowledges now - a troubled Lutz saw that driving a Prius constituted nothing less than a values statement for many of its owners, a means to bask in the perception of their own enlightenment. Even more alarming, thought Lutz, was that some consumers not enamored of the Prius itself nonetheless saw its existence as proof of Toyota's wisdom. The Prius's presence alone was drawing people to Toyota lots, where the curious bought everything from bigger sedans to sport-utility vehicles and trucks with about the same gas mileage as their GM counterparts, groused Lutz. Part of what he called the 'halo effect.'
"One sporadically selling hybrid, he realized, had greened an entire company and catapulted nearly every vehicle in its product line. It was a disturbing sea change for GM executives . . . Meanwhile, U.S. automakers, including GM, suffered under the perception that they were stuck in yesteryear and saddled with cars of inferior quality."
Lutz can't possibly be enough of a moron to believe that the Prius and its "halo effect" are a primary reason for Toyota's ascendancy. Toyota has been ascendant for at least three decades, and GM declining, for a simple reason: Toyota built cars that worked ("bulletproof," as they say) at a time when GM built cars that didn't work.
That's what was drawing people to Toyota lots a generation before the Prius was conceived.
Even today, when GM suffers under the "perception" that it's "saddled with cars of inferior quality," you only have to look at the Consumer Reports reliability ratings to see that the reason for the "perception" is that it's accurate.
The Cadillac CTS Lutz boasts about, for example, may be a great performer. But it's so unreliable that Consumer Reports can't recommend it. But the Prius is spectacularly reliable.
During those three decades of Japanese market surge, Detroit execs tried to dance around the central issue of reliability and quality, and the inability of Detroit to provide it.
For most of Lutz's career, he played down the importance of Japanese reliability by talking up the "romance" of the Euro-style sports cars and American muscle cars he (rightly) liked. Now he plays down the importance of Japanese reliability by talking up the "halo effect" that a cutting-edge "green car" can create with bicoastal elites and the media.
Environmentalism has become Detroit's latest delusion. Chrysler admits that small, fuel-efficient Fiat models aren't going to sell in large numbers - but they're going to have a "halo effect" that will "burnish" the entire Chrysler line! Chevrolet will only sell a few thousand Volts - but the bicoastal elite "green" appeal will suck media-addled buyers into the "reinvented" GM.
No. Detroit cars will sell when they're bulletproof, not when they're green (or when they're made by a company that also sells something "green"). But only one of the Big Three U.S. car manufacturers has made dramatic progress catching up to Japan on the bulletproof front - and it's not Chrysler or GM. It's the one that hasn't gone broke. *