GM Plans Four World Debuts at NAIAS. Where is Bob Lutz?

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In Lutz's own words, he is "often wrong - but seldom in doubt."

The 2013 Cadillac ATS compact sedan will be among four General Motors’ concept or production vehicles making world premieres at the 2012 North American International Auto Show in January, Mary Barra, GM Senior Vice President of Global Product Development, told the Automotive Press Association today.

The rear-wheel-drive small Cadillac entry will once again try to earn its way into a sports sedan segment long dominated by the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class and their predecessors. Previous Cadillac small car entries – the laughably incompetent front-drive Cimarron based on the Chevrolet Cavalier, and the Opel-cloned rear-drive Catera – were spectacular failures of course.

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“We have extensively and exhaustively studied the competitive segment, and we have benchmarked the best. And when this car comes out, that will be readily apparent,” said General Motors North America President Mark Reuss.

“ATS enters the biggest market segment in the global luxury car industry, both in terms of volume and importance,” said Barra.

No kidding. ATS better be good when it appears next fall.

But when I asked what GM consultant Bob Lutz was doing these days, Barra said she was trading e-mails with him about getting Lutz to drive a new Chevy Sonic, which has been on sale globally for a couple of years. While Barra called Lutz an “automotive rock star,” there was no hint in her brief response that she was spending any time with Lutz.

Hum – so much for the theory that Lutz could help her in the transition to her new job. I guess Lutz’s experience at BMW, or Ford of Europe, or his decade at GM wrestling with a broken design staff and product development organization, among the directly relevant positions, or his current vague role as consultant still means he is a GM outsider. And consultant doesn’t carry much clout inside any automotive bureaucracy.

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Barra said she has spent much of her time seeking and executing efficiencies in the way GM develops products. Core architectures – the basic building blocks of new vehicles – accounted for 30% of volume when she took over. Today, the same architectures cover 48% of volume. The goal is 90+%.

Barra, 49, as head of Global PD at GM post bankruptcy came to her high visibility position last January once occupied by formidable car guys, including Tom Stephens and of course Lutz. Before that her position was vice president, Global Human Resources. (See Lutz’s latest book Car Guys vs. Bean Counters for his opinion of the army of GM human resource people who ran a bureaucracy that not only didn’t reward people who created successful products, but actually actively worked against it with an incentive system that rewarded bad products albeit delivered on time. It was one reason for GM’s well-deserved, well-earned bankruptcy.)

Previously, Barra, a second generation GM lifer, had been vice president, Global Manufacturing Engineering. Both Lutz and Stephens carried the title of vice chairman, so Barra’s job was downgraded in the latest GM reorganization, which gives her something to aspire to I guess.

Barra leads the GM Product Development organization – $15 billion annual budget for capital expenditures and engineering – and is responsible for managing all global vehicle programs for GM. This includes global design, vehicle and powertrain engineering, program management and quality. With more than 36,000 workers, her employees also manage global strategic product alliances. (See General Motors Appoints Mary Barra, a GM Human Resources Executive, to Head Global Product Development )

After a year Barra remains unknown to the product and engineering experts who cover General Motors, which is not saying that she can’t ultimately do good things in the position. Success in product development is key of course to taxpayers recouping their investment in the reorganized General Motors Company. GM stock currently trading in the low $20-range would have to soar to more than $50 for taxpayers to break even. Right now that looks like betting on the snowball traversing the burning nether regions un-melted has better odds.

And while the company has had some recent product successes, it is by no means clear that GM can maintain and then increase its market share, particularly in the U.S. and Europe.

And if anybody should be deeply, screamingly involved in taking on the Germans in small sports sedans and coupes – it’s Lutz with his endless quest for “turn on” products. At least I think so, even if I have to listen to his egomaniac bluster at the North American International Auto Show in January when ATS debuts. (Lutz doesn’t think much of the press either – read the book – in his words he is “Often wrong – but seldom in doubt.”)

About Ken Zino

Ken Zino is an auto industry veteran with global experience in print and electronic media. He has auto testing, marketing, public relations and communications expertise garnered while working in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
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2 Responses to GM Plans Four World Debuts at NAIAS. Where is Bob Lutz?

  1. Curmudgeon says:

    An excellent analysis. That’s what’s fun about covering the industry. There is always a scenario to be worked out, and a conclusion to witness. I hear some troubling things about Bob. Stuff on the street. And of course we’ve heard all this stuff before from GM – for decades.

  2. SAE member says:

    You forgot to mention another clear flop – the Epsilon 1-based BLS which was laughed at in Europe.

    Among the GM engineering ranks, Barra is seen as a self-serving lightweight promoted by Akerson. She lacks both engineering chops and car-person DNA, and this is obvious to all.

    I reckon shuffling Tom [Stephens] aside into the “CTO” [chief technology officer] job before he retires (takes the veteran white male GM lifer out of the public eye) and bringing in the younger female to “head” PD was a sop to the Obama Admin and its GM overseers.

    A worthy candidate for global PD boss is Federico, whom Lutz highly respects and mentioned to me two years ago as a favorite. I’m told Jim was shuffled aside by Akerson when the order came down to prepare Stephens’ slot for a new replacement.

    Interesting to watch, but we both know how badly GM needs a strong-willed, focused, straight-shooting personality for this key slot, at this critical time period. Similar to 1952/Ed Cole and 2001/Bob Lutz in my view.

    Keep up the good work at AutoInformed.

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