http://quote.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=10000039&cid=levin&sid=aS08LWOLGBbwBloomberg.com said:Pontiac Solstice's Good Looks Are a Rarity for GM: Doron Levin
Aug. 11 (Bloomberg) -- The new Pontiac Solstice roadster is an eye-catching example of what General Motors Corp. has had trouble building in recent years: attractive cars.
This month, Pontiac dealers will start selling the low- slung, two-seater to customers paying between $20,000 and $25,000. If you haven't seen it, think Mazda Miata with an American flavor.
GM is counting on Solstice to perk up Pontiac's sagging image. Expected to sell a relatively modest 15,000 to 20,000 copies a year, the new model by itself can't make much of a difference for GM, which had $193.5 billion of revenue on sales of almost 9 million vehicles in 2004. A Solstice success, however, might suggest that GM has a shot at recapturing a once- estimable reputation for design.
The automaker was the first to grasp the importance of style and color back when Henry Ford thought all cars should be black. GM lost its supremacy during a 20-year fit of corporate confusion, apparently forgetting that it wasn't selling machinery or transportation solutions. Cars are the way many American drivers express themselves, as reflective of their owners' personalities as the clothes they wear.
German and Japanese vehicles first made inroads in the U.S. market for reasons of quality, cost and engineering prowess. Then, borrowing from the lesson that GM once taught Ford, they focused on making cars with emotional appeal.
New Design Chief
``We are paying attention to the appearance of our cars and trucks as never before, especially the interiors,'' said Ed Welburn, 54, GM vice president of design since October, 2003. The 32-year GM veteran is only the sixth person to hold the job. ``Today we have a totally different attitude, we had to go back to basics.''
Solstice is the pet project of former Chrysler Corp. executive Bob Lutz, the 73-year-old vice chairman that GM hired toward the end of 2001 to promote the creation of more compelling vehicles. Since the lead time on a new design typically is at least three years from conception to delivery, Solstice is the first GM vehicle to bear Lutz's imprint from birth.
Pontiac's image, and that of other GM makes, has suffered for years due to bland exteriors and unappetizing interiors. The Pontiac Grand Am, for example, was a favorite of rental fleets mostly because the car was such an aesthetic dud that it had to be sold at a discount.
Pontiac last attempted a two-seater in the 1980s with Fiero. Fiero's looks were undermined by big troubles under the hood: the plastic-body car had an engine with an unfortunate tendency to leak oil and then ignite spontaneously -- earning it the nickname ``Fiero flambe'' and leading to its early demise.
In its heyday, GM led the industry in styling, creating such classics as the 1957 Chevrolet and 1963 Buick Riviera.
``GM owned design for decades,'' said Jim Hall, vice president of industry analysis for AutoPacific Inc., a marketing consulting firm in Southfield, Michigan. ``It was the first automaker to really understand color and shape as differentiators.''
According to Hall, the priorities of GM planners and manufacturing executives -- such as fuel economy and ease of assembly -- trumped visual appeal in the 1980s and 1990s. GM, moreover, insisted on testing designs with focus groups, selecting those that didn't elicit intense reactions. The process tended to promote safe, non-descript designs.
``The problem was that nobody loved these cars, and nobody hated them,'' Hall said.
Or as Lutz often asserts: ``A car that can be everyone's second choice is doomed to fail.'' The 2001 Aztek crossover, certainly the most ridiculed Pontiac ever to wear the badge, may live forever as proof of why the committee system of approving new models is dangerous. Lutz, before joining GM, once professed incredulity that top executives lacked the gut instinct to veto Aztek irrespective of how it tested.
The good news for GM is that the Solstice appears to be the first of a series of several potentially appealing car, truck and crossover models headed for showrooms in the next 30 months.
Since June, the automaker has been inviting journalists to its design studios in Warren, Michigan, a half-dozen miles north of Detroit, to view future versions of the Cadillac Escalade, Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Malibu, GMC Sierra and a series of new Saturns. One, the Saturn Skye, is a two-seater mechanically identical to the Solstice with styling cues similar to GM's Opel European brand.
The No. 1 automaker worldwide in terms of vehicle sales is making headlines because of its junk-rated debt, the size of its health-care spending and talks with the United Auto Workers union about reducing costs.
The automaker's leaders now seem to grasp that in the race to compete in global markets based on efficiency and competitive prices, they lost touch with the reason many people buy a vehicle. The look, feel and touch of a car still count for a lot.
As GM's Welburn explained, ``it was always easy to cut corners on the interior'' if a project was running late and over budget. Now GM realizes that survival depends on matching, and even surpassing, innovative interiors by the likes of Toyota Motor Corp. and BMW AG.
``Proportion is everything,'' he said. ``You can move a dashboard back just a few millimeters and the feeling for passengers is much more pleasant.'' He said GM also is making smarter selections of materials that are pleasant as well as cost effective. ``All plastic,'' he said, ``is not created equal.''
GM's latest design initiative is hardly the first time the automaker has sworn it will improve its vehicles. And GM's competitors aren't standing still while it tries catching up.
With GM's financial cushion nearly gone, the race to recapture the good looks of its youth is more critical than ever.