DETROIT – You’ve had a rough couple of weeks, personally, during the early stages of taking what was once the World’s Largest Automaker through Chapter 11 reorganization. You’ve been quoted as saying you expect to remain General Motors’ chief executive officer after the proceedings are over. And just now, some of GM’s investors and bondholders have filed objections to the Section 363 plans in bankruptcy court. Some critics suggest you get the boot, like your predecessor and mentor, Rick Wagoner.
They say GM needs to change its culture, pointing to Ford Motor Company, which changed its ways when William Clay Ford gave up his CEO title to Alan Mulally. The rank-and-file aren’t scared to ask probing questions out there in Dearborn, anymore.
I agree with those critics that GM needs to change its culture, but that doesn’t mean you need to go. Mr. Henderson – Fritz, if I may – you need some fresh blood at the top of the organizational chart. Bob Lutz, who retires at the end of this year, was a good start. But even if he questioned things like no one at GM before him (okay, maybe since John DeLorean, at least) you need to find even more radical gadfly executives.
With Lutz running the product side, you’ve had far more, and greater, successes than failures the last five years. I’m not going to count anything in development before the ’04 Pontiac GTO, or Bob Lutz would have to take responsibility for the Pontiac G6. He can take credit for the ’08 Chevy Malibu and Cadillac CTS, the Pontiac G8 (a good car, even if a marketplace failure), the Buick Enclave and ’10 LaCrosse, the Opel Insignia, ’10 Cadillac SRX and Chevy Equinox, and upcoming models like the Chevy Cruze, Volt and Orlando.
There’s one recent failure, though, that epitomizes what’s been wrong with GM for decades. I’m talking about the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. Surprised? Yes, and I’m surprised that the Solstice, which was the best-selling two-seat roadster in the U.S. for a short time after it launched has lasted just one lifecycle. And not a full lifecycle at that.
Pontiac is going away and Roger Penske is about to buy Saturn. Penske won’t get the Sky, not even for a year or two. The Wilmington, Delaware factory and with it the Kappa rear-wheel-drive platform, are history. This would not have been an inconsiderable flushing of money down the toilet — not only for New GM, but for Old GM as well. It recalls the Pontiac Fiero, a radical design with some promise until they started catching fire in the unfavorable, literal sense of the term.
What, precisely, went wrong with the Kappas? Us car guys in general love cars built to be fun-to-drive, and car guys like me, specifically, like lightweight roadsters with the emphasis on handling rather than straight-line acceleration. Franz Von Holzhausen’s voluptuous Solstice design certainly was pleasing to the eye.
That was the first problem, though; the primacy of GM Design over practical engineering and Lutz’s determination that the production Solstice look like the concept, and that it come in cheaper than a Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Now, you needed an all-new, RWD platform, one that used some FWD small-car bits. No problem there – the 1990 Miata was very much a parts bin car, including some parts from the only other RWD Mazda car, the RX-7. The Miata undoubtedly had a longer gestation period, but it worked, right out of the box. And Mazda has managed to update the car without straying from its basic nature, as a lightweight, tossable roadster that most new-car buyers can afford. Unlike the British and Italian sports cars that served as its inspiration, Miatas tend to last, making it affordable for most used car buyers, too.
Your basic problem is this: the Pontiac Solstice began with a drawing, then a concept. Then it got a platform and a drivetrain. It was designed from the outside-in.
Colin Chapman would have done it as Mazda did (if you don’t know who he is, you should find out, fast): it designed the Miata from the inside-out. Front engine with the driveshaft running to the rear wheels, within a backbone chassis, designed first. Give it quick, precise steering and stiff, but compliant handling and ride. Add two seats, then – and only then – wrap some sheetmetal around it.
Somehow, Mazda managed to eke out trunk space and interior cubbies out of this design. Your Solstice/Sky had room for no more than a briefcase in the trunk. And because GM stuck with the early Corvette-style “headrest” moldings in the trunklid, you have to open the trunklid the wrong way. No fun in the rain.
Meanwhile, inside, there’s no room – nothing – for basic necessities like parking cards, sunglasses, iPods, tollbooth change. Unless you count that cheap plastic bin between the seats. It’s hard to reach while you’re driving, and on our unsuccessful Car of the Year entrant, the latch came broken.
To raise or lower the top, you have to get out of the car. There are those recalcitrant remote-operated latches on the top’s flying buttresses. Pop those up from inside, then get out, fold up the front of the top and then smush the glass backlight down, hard, until you think you’re about to crack it in two. Engineering this top added cost and time to the Kappa program. It’s a convertible top, fercrissakes, not extended-range electric technology.
Full disclosure. Between my wife and me, we’re on our third Miata. On my first one, a ’94 R-package, I could raise or lower the top from behind the wheel, without unbuckling my seatbelt. It’s fun, see, to keep the top down until the rain is just about ready to pour.
We have an ’08 with the folding hardtop, now, the epitome of elegant design. We lose no precious trunk space, top up or down, and can raise or lower the two-piece hardtop in about half the time it takes to raise or lower the Solstice/Sky’s ragtop. Without leaving our seats.
You’ve just released a hardtop Solstice, while at the same time pulling the plug on Pontiac. It doesn’t even have space to store the removable hardtop in its hatch-boot.
I know. Sports cars aren’t meant to be practical. Believe me, I’ve owned nearly as many two-seaters as four/five-passenger cars. (The header latches on the Solstice/Sky, by the way, were done as well as the ones on the ’77 Triumph Spitfire I had in the early ’80s.)
I’d forgive the lack of practical space if the Solstice/Sky matched the Miata for handling. Not even close. The Solstice/Sky felt like an overweight two-seat, cut-down version of the 2002 Pontiac Firebird, with all the understeer you’ve built into your small cars since Ralph Nader published “Unsafe at Any Speed.”
It took the upgrade from a 2.4-liter four to the Solstice GXP/Sky Redline’s 2.0-liter turbo to make the cars the least bit fun to drive. I know, you’ve heard enough of the name “Miata,” but that car was fun to drive out of the box, even with an anemic 116-horsepower Ford Escort engine.
Pontiac launched the Solstice some 17 years after Mazda launched the Miata. Didn’t GM take a look at the competition, the benchmark? I’ve heard that GM designers and engineers had just one Mazda Miata in its competitive fleet as it was finishing up the ’06 Solstice. Just one. And it was an automatic.
Fact is, even in the dismal market of 2008, when the Miata outsold the Solstice and Sky individually in the U.S., Solstice/Sky combined sales outpaced the Miata, 19,801 to 10,977. The ’07 numbers were 28,042 for Solstice/Sky, versus 15,075 for the Miata, while Mazda sells more than twice that U.S. number globally, in a good year. Figure total Kappa sales topped 35,000 globally, including the Opel GT variant, and the sales in a good year was nothing to sneeze at, for a niche car. Tell me that Kappa is being discontinued because you’re getting rid of Pontiac and Saturn and I won’t believe it. Another lifecycle, as a Chevy, would give you a better chance of making money on the platform.
You can point to stricter fuel economy standards, but there will be room for cars like the Miata, or Sky, even if they have to run on one-and-a-half liter turbo engines instead of what they’ve got now. In the future, with people buying fewer cars, the Miata will be a first or second car more than a third or fourth, which is why folding hardtops and minimal luggage space will be more important than ever.
This reeks of GM’s 50-year habit of launching innovative small cars, failing to meet consumer expectations, failing to make money on them, and then dropping them for another model with a new name. Corvair, Vega, Citation, Cavalier … even the Cobalt turns out to be a single-cycle model. It will be replaced with the ever-important Chevy Cruze. You can’t afford not to make profitable, high-quality compacts and subcompacts. They all will be front-wheel-drive.
I fear that the problems with the Kappa and larger Zeta rear-wheel-drive platforms will give you an excuse to give up on inexpensive rear-drive platforms, forever. Only Cadillacs, including a compact “Alpha,” and the ultra-niche Corvette are likely to live on to 2020.
It’s one thing to admit a car like the Solstice/Sky isn’t working and drop it quickly. It’s another to figure out that there is a small, but enthusiastic following for this kind of car, the kind of following that could tout your FWD compacts to the great, non-enthusiast masses. So I’m having trouble believing that GM’s current upper-management can react to Kappa’s failure by ordering designers and engineers back to the drawing boards, to design a new, better, small RWD platform. That’s where cultural change comes in; the kind of change that would prove me wrong.
Source : blogs.motortrend.com/6523729/editorial/open-letter-to-fritz-henderson/index.html