"GM in America Is a Truck and SUV Company" - Shaking the Gas Guzzler Image
Editorial by Ming
Recently I had a conversation with a Honda loyalist who told me "GM is a truck and SUV company. If I want to buy a big SUV or a diesel truck, maybe I'll consider them.". This coming from a fan of the company that just won Truck of the Year with its Ridgeline. But image is everything, and Toyohonda seem to have a monopoly on the Green Image in the industry.
How is it that all of that Cobalt, Impala, and Lucerne advertising can't seem to change GM's image as the big bad company selling mostly gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks? How is it that the release of the HHR, Solstice and ION don't merit praise and a change of attitude towards what the General offers on the fuel efficiency front?
Well don't get me wrong, because I certainly don't blame it all on the press. Most of the Super Bowl ads from GM featured SUVs as GM's newest stars, while Toyota took a green approach as if to make the point even more obvious.
Bob Lutz recently posted his commentary "Flexible Pickup, FlexFuel" in the Fastlane GM corporate blog. GM has chosen what one poster called its "Consumption Reduction" strategy. That is, the idea that if GM can get SUV miles per gallon up, it can save more gas than a whole fleet of Priuses might. The blog commentary explains that GM is "extolling the virtues of ethanol" and flexible fuel in its vehicles. While these ideas have merit and truth to them, they don't win the image battle.
If GM wants to go with Ethanol, then it will win far more image points by going one step further and making a subcompact engine that can run on it available here in the U.S., or make its VUE Hybrid capable of running on E85 as well. An effort like that could help GM take that leap from "trying to keep up with Toyota" to passing or at least matching them - in a single bound.
Aside from the VUE and the less talked about Malibu hybrid, GM focuses most of its fuel savings on its large SUVs. They say this is to help save the maximum amount of fuel in the end in a product that Americans want to buy. I don't think its any coincidence, however, that GM's largest trucks and SUVs are also some of its most profitable vehicles.
They're also mighty expensive. So if you want to save gas money, buy a 40 thousand dollar Suburban with cylinder deactivation technology? Certainly GM's "Big truck flex fuel, DOD and hybrid consumption reduction" strategy isn't targeted towards penny pinchers. Instead, it seems a way to stave off negative press by being able to point out, "Hey, our SUVs aren't as thristy as they used to be!"
But they're still expensive. And they're still relatively thirsty, especially considering the new pack of subcompact cars coming from Toyohondassan that get up to 40mpg with regular gas engines. All that, while the Aveo appears to be launching with basically the same fuel inefficient engine design that was used in the late 1990's Daewoo Lanos, and the Cobalt's fuel economy still leaves something to be desired.
A 30mpg wagon-like vehicle such as the Malibu Maxx seems to make a whole lot of sense in this environment of high and unpredictable gas prices, but according to rumor the Maxx is on the chopping block --- which isn't surprising considering how few advertisements I've seen for it. The HHR will stay, and is a great little wagon, but strangely also gets only 30 miles per gallon at best, despite a much smaller engine.
To be sure, GM should be praised for its excellent introduction of the VUE hybrid, which seems to be winning some good press. But Saturn is still that brand strangely disconnected from the rest of the GM brand family, where one can't use GM Card points or expect other special discounts unrelated to rebates like the GM Supplier discount. Its hard to say that Saturn looking green will rub off on GM as a company and its other brands.
This leaves GM's mainstream brands with its big truck hybrids & SUVs opening up to a huge gap between utility, price and fuel savings with the upcoming Chevrolet Malibu hybrid, which as far as I know will only be offered as the short wheelbase sedan. That and the E85 flex fuel Impala, which might be more of a factor if it was coupled with a little BAS hybrid help.
Where is the mainstream GM brand hybrid or fuel efficient vehicle for someone who wants a little more utility than a compact sedan can offer, without making the leap to a massive SUV and big loan payments?
Like I wrote before regarding wagons, GM pushes potential customers like me away by ignoring market segments that brands like Toyota, Honda, Mazda and others seem to understand, or at least understand by extension of designing vehicles for non-U.S. markets and having the models they sell overseas on hand to sell here. Not all of us need a whopping V8 powered truck with seating for 8 and a whopping price tag to go along with it. Sometimes a fuel efficient wagon or crossover is all we need.
I recall hearing one of the talking heads on a morning news show come out and say "It seems all GM wants to do is build more trucks and SUVs. Why don't they just save us all the drama and just start doing only that?"
Why go through the charade of introducing the 2004 Malibu when it wasn't designed to be best in class at the time, and is quickly being eclipsed by other offerings? Is GM really an SUV company first, like the Honda loyalist suggested? Should they just build SUVs, trucks, and maybe a few RWD performance cars and call it a day? Is the market success of the Aveo a result of GM's attempt to compete in the small car market, or was it just a way to raise CAFE numbers and grab a few sales?
Lets see GM do more along the VUE Greenline angle with an Equinox hybrid, building a 40mpg ethanol hybrid, and investing more in its gasoline 4-cylinder engines to get a much needed dose of R&D money to improve fuel efficiency in the Aveo and Delta-based cars. Lets see a best in class mid-size car that shocks the critics. Or how about that Saab BioPower wagon? More talk of "mild hybrid" trucks and flex fuel in large pickups will barely make a dent in the image battle with Toyohonda.
GM has to prove to the public through its actions and product that it is not dependent on SUVs and trucks for its survival --- that it is not a dinosaur that cannot adapt; a beast floundering in a tar pit waiting to be put out of its misery with the next oil shock or thrust of product from a Japanese rival. Only then will we stop seeing the articles that tie GM to the image of a massive, thirsty SUV.