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Building Strong Brands

GM leverages its global prowess with a focus on improving the perceived quality of its North American fleet.

General Motors’ key areas of emphasis for 2005 and beyond, not surprisingly, are direct responses to two of the company’s most consistent criticisms: “a renewed commitment to building strong brands” and continued improvement in the overall quality, including an intense focus on “enhancing and improving perceived quality — the vehicle attributes that a customer sees, hears, smells, touches and experiences.”
“Our new products will help each brand deliver on its individual promise,” said GM North America President Gary Cowger at GM’s July ’05 Preview. “A broad-brand portfolio, with clear and relevant differentiation between brands, allows GM to address highly diverse customer desires and expectations. The renaissance of the Cadillac brand gives us confidence that we can extend this kind of success across our lineup of brands. To accomplish this goal, we are continuing to leverage global vehicle architectures, compelling design, inspiring performance, surprising and meaningful product innovations and continuous quality improvements.”

Do GM’s new and improved 2005 products stand up to these objectives?

 GM says that Cobalt will rewrite the rules of the small car market.
Chevrolet has four all-new products, three new nameplates and other major improvements for 2005. Most exciting is the sixth-generation Corvette, amply powered by a 400-hp 6.0L LS2 version of GM’s new Gen IV smallblock V-8 engine family. The C-6 Corvette (see April 2004, AI) is dramatically better in performance, handling, interior appointments and (most agree) styling than the already excellent C-5, leaving us to wonder why it does not have a manual-shift feature — increasingly popular on performance and luxury products — for its available 4-speed automatic. Chevy’s SSR, criticized by some for less than Vette-like performance, also gets the 6.0L LS2 and a 6-speed manual gearbox.

Chevy says its all-new Cobalt coupes and sedans, which share GM’s Delta front-wheeldrive small-car platform with the Saturn Ion, “will rewrite the rules of the small-car market.” We’ll have driving impressions soon, but Cobalt — powered by a 140-hp 2.2L Ecotec DOHC 4-cylinder — appears to have what it will take to compete effectively with class-leaders Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. It slots in above the outgoing Cavalier in price, features and appointments, leaving ample room below for the Korean-built entrylevel Aveo. And a hot SS Supercharged Coupe version boasts a blown 205-hp 2.0L Ecotec.

The second new nameplate is Uplander, one of four upgraded and facelifted FWD mid-vans GM is positioning as “crossover sport vans,” blending SUV and minivan attributes. This conversion is mostly a matter of grafted-on SUV-like noses and C-pillars, available AWD and some nice new features, including standard rear-seat DVD entertainment systems. Their only engine is the same 200-hp 3.5L pushrod V- 6 found in Malibu and a growing list of GM products. The third is Equinox, the compact SUV intro’d earlier this year on the Saturn VUE platform. Fuel-saving Displacement on Demand (DOD) cylinder deactivation becomes available in just one Chevy product, the 5300 Vortec V-8-powered long-wheelbase TrailBlazer EXT, while availability of the gaselectric hybrid Silverado pickup expands to retail customers in six states.

Besides its new Relay “family utility unit,” Saturn showed 2005 Ion coupes and sedans and Vue SUV models with significant improvements addressing most of the criticisms aimed at earlier versions. Also performance- tuned and -trimmed Red Line versions of both (actually ’04-1/2s), the Ion getting the 205-hp supercharged Ecotec. The ’05 Ion benefits from much-needed interior and NVH upgrades, while the troublesome CVT is dropped from both.

In addition to the Montana SV6 “crossover” van, Pontiac’s major new entry is the G6 compact sedan, which shares the excellent Epsilon architecture — and, unfortunately, the 3.5L pushrod V-6 engine and 4-speed automatic — with Chevy’s Malibu and Maxx. Not that this isn’t a perfectly good engine — it pumps out a healthy 200 horses and 220 lb.ft. of torque along with impressive economy (20/30/25 EPA mpg in the G6). But its “old tech” valvetrain will hurt the high-aspiration G6 in the eyes of media and enthusiasts. There will be more technically exciting powertrains down the road, but Pontiac — aspiring to be GM’s Europerformance brand — should have found a more appropriate powerplant for launch of this critically important new product. New vehicles make their reputations with initial media reviews, and those reputations are tough to turn around — a lesson the fastimproving GM still needs to learn.

Otherwise, the Grand Am replacement G6 looks good inside and out and promises outstanding dynamics thanks to its crisply tuned 4- wheel independent suspension. One noteworthy feature: a market-exclusive “Panoramic” roof with four sliding-glass panels to create a “convertible-style open-air driving experience.”

Pontiac’s Australian-born GTO gets the Corvette’s new 400-hp LS2 V-8 plus improvements including a new rear fascia with dual exhaust outlets on both sides, where they belong, and (for those who really need them) optional simulated scoops for its hood. Unlike Pontiac, Buick did come up with an excellent alternative engine for its highly important LaCrosse mid-size sedan, which shoulders the load of replacing two legendary Buick nameplates, Century and Regal.

Standard is GM’s 200-hp 3.8L 3800 pushrod V-6, a highly competent veteran, good enough to have overcome its “old-tech” image in most previous applications. But for those elitists who wouldn’t have a pushrod under their hoods if it were platinum plated, LaCrosse offers a 240-hp version of the same 3.6L DOHC VVT V-6 that powers Cadillac’s CTS.

Interestingly, the 3800 has more torque, 230 lb.ft. vs. the 3.6’s 335.

Buick’s Terraza “crossover” SUVan will be the most upscale, especially in interior appointments and quietness, in keeping with the division’s mission to move further upmarket under Cadillac. It will be interesting to see how Terraza competes on the same showroom floor as Rendezvous, Buick’s other minivan-based crossover, which gets a nicely appointed 3.6L DOHC VVT V-6-powered Ultra variation.

Cadillac launches its third new entry on the excellent RWD Sigma architecture, the highly anticipated STS luxury sedan, replacing the FWD Seville. It offers a choice of 255-hp 3.6L DOHC VVT V-6 or 320-hp 4.6L Northstar DOHC VVT V-8, an impressive balance of ride and handling, a quiet and finely crafted interior and optional AWD. (see July 2004, AI). The smaller CTS gets a new entry-level version with a 210-hp 2.8L version of the DOHC VVT V-6.

The Saturn Relay “family utility unit,” shares its architecture with the Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander and Pontiac Montana and will be the first non-plastic Saturn to be introduced into the portfolio.
GMC launches high-zoot Denali versions of just about everything, adds Stabilitrak to Yukon models and Displacement on Demand (DOD) cylinder deactivation to the Vortec 5300 V8- powered long-wheelbase Envoy XL and XUV and sends small numbers of its hybrid Sierra pickup out for retail sales in limited locations. Hummer adds an expandable-bed SUT pickup version of its H2, while Saab launches its Subaru-based 9-2X AWD sport compact (AI, July 2004) and is prepping its TrailBlazer-based 9-7X SUV for a near-future debut.

GM has indeed improved brand identity and quality, both real and perceived, of its new products in the last few years but has much work ahead to update and upgrade the rest of its lines. As highly competitive new cars and trucks phase out uncompetitive older ones over the next several years, the still commonly held low perception of GM products should eventually give way to much-improved reality.

2005 GM Bright Ideas

Magnetic Ride Control.

World’s fastest electronic suspension control system, which uses magnetic fluid to adjust damping rates up to 1,000 times a second, extends to ’05 Chevy Corvette and Cadillac STS in addition to Caddy XLR and SRX.

Remote Vehicle Starter.

Industry first in ’04 Malibu and Maxx expands to ’05 Pontiac G6 and “crossover sport vans” (Chevy Uplander, Saturn Relay, Pontiac Montana SV6 and Buick Terraza); “Smart Remote Start” on Cadillac STS also adjusts personalization settings.

Mobile Digital Media Powered by PhatNoise System.

Available mid-’05 in Uplander/Relay/Montana/Terraza “crossover” vans, allows storage of hundreds of hours of music, movies and other entertainment media on a single hard-drive cartridge.

Panoramic Roof.

Developed by Webasto, this market-exclusive four sliding glass panels create a “convertible-style open-air driving experience” in ’05 Pontiac G6 sedan.

OnStar Generation 6.

New hardware with both digital and analog coverage (to accommodate future upgrades), including upgraded voice recognition and more intuitive continuous- digit dialing, available on 29 GM models at the start of ’05 model year.

Advanced Automatic Crash Notification (AACN).

On OnStar-equipped ’05 Buick Ranier, Cadillac STS, Chevrolet Malibu, Cobalt and TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, Pontiac G6; transmits crash data to 911 centers for fast dispatch of appropriate life-saving personnel and equipment.

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