February 13, 2008

Don't Wait Up For Those Chevy Traverse Mileage Numbers

GM's vice-chairman and chief car design guy Bob Lutz recently told a roomful of lunch-mooching Texas journalists that global warming is "total crock of shit." [sorry, mom, it's a quote!].

And if that's not crazy enough for you, he also said the Cadillac CTS is a "blockbuster," and "an exciting mobile sculpture that you want to own, drive and be seen in."

Uhh... or not.

GM’s Lutz On Hybrids, Global Warming And Cars As Art [dmagazine.com via jalopnik]

Previously: Traverse launch: 'one badge-engineered crossover too many?'


If I owned any GM shares, I'd be selling them right now. It's frightening to see the head of one of America's largest corporations so disconnected from reality.

Bob Lutz's views on global warming are completely beside the point; his job is to build cars that people want to buy. To the extent people want to buy cars that minimize C02 emissions, his job is to build those, too (and GM is moving forward on that front, with the Volt and various hybrids). So far, it looks like Lutz is doing a pretty good job with that; the Malibu, e.g., is apparently selling so well that they cannot keep them on the lot.

As for the new CTS, it might not be everyone's cup of tea, but in enthusiast-BMW-intender circles it is doing exactly what it is supposed to: get people talking about Cadillac (and GM) as legitimate, credible alternatives to the German brands. Given the positive press it has received (one of Car and Driver's 10 Best cars this year, just like the BMW 3 series and Honda Accord, e.g.), I'd say calling it a "blockbuster" is fair.

[sorry, but the insane opinions of one car designer DO matter when taken in context with GM's longstanding opposition to CAFE standards, California emissions, and the design direction GM's cars are going in generally. There are factors as equally important to Lutz's job as what cars "people" "want." As for the Volt, I'll believe it when I see it; it feels like a PR smokescreen to me, a distraction to sell more Hummers in the mean time. And I realize it doesn't come across clearly, but I'd meant to read the CTS "you" as "me," and it is definitely not a car I want.

In Lutz's [feeble] defense, he's probably no worse than the head of any giant manufacturer whose existence depends on selling millions of environmentally damaging products every year. The Germans are apparently fighting emissions standards, too; it's not like the RS6 runs on rainbows and sunshine. They're just not dumb enough to say "crock of shit" in front of a roomful of journalists. -ed.]

I hope that guy donates his brain to science when he goes, because he has got to have some kind of Kreutzfeld-Jakob-Alzheimer-Tourette syndrome hybrid that's never been seen in nature before, based on his quotes from the last six months.

JT: I doubt most people "want" to commit suicide by global warming and war in the Middle East. They are just ignorant -- thinking that if a "respectable" company like GM sells it, it can't be all that bad.

Besides all of their CAFE-fighting and Yukon-selling, GM is off my personal shopping list for other reasons. They are trying to overdevelop on the site of an old assembly plant here in Westchester County, New York, and have fought tooth and nail to avoid building to strong energy efficiency standards. It's pathetic.

While I didn't get a chance to meet with Lutz while at the Chicago Auto Show, I did meet with Troy Clarke, the GM North America VP at a "bloggers lunch." Almost all of the questions had to do with fuel economy standards and what GM was doing to improve the fuel economy of their cars. Clarke seems genuinely interested in these issues, but it’s mostly from a techie perspective (I believe he was one of the folks working on their electric car back in the 1980s). It was interesting to hear him spin the Volt as their answer to the Prius, while skirting the issue of where one gets the electricity for the Volt (in most states, it’s from coal-fired power plants, which are terrible). He also avoided any discussion of the Volt’s hugely inefficient profile, which GM’s stylists have refused to completely abandon to the wind-tunnel engineers. They’ve apparently made some minor tweaks that favor a lower drag coefficient, but refuse to give up the overall design (god knows why – it’s far uglier than the already aesthetically challenged Prius, whose form at least follows function and has one of the lowest drag coefficients at .26). Granted, the batteries on a Prius are a nightmare to recycle, so all these solutions have their problems.

The most revealing comment was that Clarke actually dismissed fuel efficiency as a relatively minor problem that could be easily solved in the near future. The real issue for him was how to deal with congestion. GM’s proposal is WIFI chips embedded in cars that would allow them to talk to one another and drive remotely, thus providing better traffic flow. For a company that doesn’t even have a fully functional, marketable car with 40+miles efficiency, I’d say he’s overly optimistic about thinking that far ahead. Besides, one simple solution to congestion is better public transportation, railroads, etc. But that’s a problem for the gov’t, not companies like GM.

[And if I remember my history correctly, GM killed the LA streetcar industry back in the 20's. And nearly destroyed Toontown in the process. If mileage isn't a big deal, the automakers should stop opposing raising the fleet standards and exempting phony "trucks" from the calculation. -ed.]

My comments above were mostly directed at the first commenter; from a shareholder perspective, Bob Lutz has been very good for GM, because he has been been behind a resurgence in building good (and in some cases great) products--and at the end of the day, that's what matters in the car business, especially if you are a shareholder.

He has a propensity to say stupid things from time to time. That cannot be denied. And whatever he says, he says in colorful language that tends to ramp up the impact (good and bad). But that's part of his appeal, honestly, and I'd rather have a flamboyant guy who understands how to build good cars than a grey guy who doesn't. There have been far, far too many of the latter at GM since...uh...probably about 1973.

@AgnesDad--I think you are giving people too little credit. I think everyone who buys an Escalade or a Sequoia or a Land Cruiser or an Armada knows exactly the tradeoff that they are making. If anything, the people who buy a Sequoia over a Tahoe (despite the Tahoe's better fuel economy) because of the "green" image Toyota has because of the Prius are the ones getting suckered.

As for fuel efficiency standards like CAFE, the phony trucks loophole exemplifies the silliness of trying to regulate fuel efficiency from the supply-side, rather than the demand-side. Indeed, there's a strong argument that CAFE *created* the SUV by penalizing carmakers for building big cars (that people wanted). The runaway sales success of the Cherokee and the Explorer was driven, in part, by the fact that someone who wanted a big car couldn't get one--but they could get a truck.

High gas prices would kill the SUV (they already are, as a matter of fact). They would also kill the big car (see, e.g., Europe). But politicians in the US don't want to impose high gas taxes because it is politically suicidal. To the extent that gas prices are low, car consumers' incentives will not be aligned with CAFE standards, and you will continue to see regulatory arbitrage practiced by companies that want to build what their customers want to buy.

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