GM's Tom Stephens
2010 Chevy Equinox
2010 Buick LaCrosse
It has finally come to this. GM. No, I don't mean filing for and reemerging from bankruptcy. I mean building a couple of new products that are truly as good as the people at GM say they are. Well, maybe not that good, but a damn sight closer to what is real than is generally the case. A car and a crossover. The Buick LaCrosse and the Chevrolet Equinox. Too bad they didn't come out sooner. Say three years ago. I don't think they would have necessarily saved GM from having to file papers with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, but they would have made the position of the New GM one heck of a lot stronger. What's more, had those vehicles come out three years ago, GM would have had more cars on dealer lots today that more than viable, and more cars ready to come out of the product development pipeline.
Granted, neither of these vehicles just suddenly appeared. People have been working on them for quite some time. I talked with Jim Federico, Global Vehicle Line Executive—Midsize Cars, under whose careful watch and high levels of commitment the LaCrosse has come to be. He has put in time in Europe, the U.S., and frequently China, as interior design work was done at the Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center, a design and engineering joint venture between GM and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC). Buick is wildly popular in China, and while some people thought that it should have simply been a brand in China, if the new LaCrosse is any indication of what Buick can do, then it should start gaining traction in the U.S. The underpinnings of the LaCrosse—a new version of the venerable Epsilon platform—combine the best of European ride and handling (the Opel Insignia, which preceded the LaCrosse, is also based on Epsilon, and Federico worked on that vehicle, too) with the sort of comfort and convenience that is more well suited for the American highways and byways. The second-generation Equinox not only has all of the boxes checked when it comes to competitive attributes—from roominess to performance to fuel efficiency—but it comes wrapped in a package, both exterior styling to interior attention to detail, that makes it more than hold its own when it comes to the likes of the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4. This is a case where the crossover can speak for itself.
One of the problems that has long plagued GM is the Lake Wobegon effect. Every time a new vehicle emerged it was, so they claimed, at the very least "above average." Not only is this a statistical impossibility, but an aberration the likes of which isn't a sign of competitive thinking. Better is better, not saying it is makes it so.
Even before it entered into Chapter 11, and certainly of late, GM has been making some significant changes in its executive and engineering leadership. One change that occurred earlier this year was moving Tom Stephens from his position as executive vice president, Global Powertrain and Global Quality, to vice chairman, Global Product Development. I had originally thought that Larry Burns, vice president, Research and Development and Strategic Planning, a man who has tirelessly championed advanced technology and mobility at GM, would have been the ideal person for that position. And that may have been the case, but Burns is retiring from the company after 40 years. But as I think more about it, Stephens is the right kind of person to be in charge of the products that are being developed specifically because he was the person in charge of powertrain.
When it comes to engines, there's no hiding. Its performance—be it horsepower, torque, fuel efficiency, or all three—are metrics that can't be fudged. Its production costs are largely predicated on design and engineering. It is real, not something that can be spun. If there are issues, then they become fairly clear fairly fast. In powertrain there's little room for unsubstantiated claims of being "above average" (which in auto spin is typically "Better than the Camry and the Accord").
GM needs the dose of reality that a guy like Stephens can provide. It needs cars and crossovers like the LaCrosse and the Equinox. It needs to be competitive and not just claim that it is. It needs to prove to the market that it is truly putting out cars and trucks that people can truly depend on, and not just work at moving sheet metal at the expense of all else. It has been given the chance to prove itself. GM isn't out of the proverbial woods yet. Not by a long shot. It needs too prove itself with deeds—with cars and trucks—more than with claims and cash-back. It can. It should. But it is up to the leadership whether it will.