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Are These in GM's Future?

The folks at General Motors are again stealing a page from the old Chrysler Corporation.

The folks at General Motors are again stealing a page from the old Chrysler Corporation. That is—if you can't sell what you got, show them what's coming. In early November, the powers that be at the GM Design Studio took the wraps off the 2001 concept line-up. These vehicles will be rolled out at auto shows over the next year, including this month in Detroit and Los Angeles. While the value of the early intros is debatable, it does give some interesting insight into the General's future.

Not surprisingly, the company has opted to target the Echo generation. Like many companies, GM has a special team to study and understand the Echo generation. The Company has pulled together a team called iSYS, for “innovative Smart Youth Strategy,” to help GM better understand and reach younger buyers. A cynic might suggest that they might as well target the Echo generation because it appears that they have lost the Boomers and the Gen X'ers.

The Bengal
The Bengal: Will this be Buick's real Tiger?

Maybe the most interesting of the vehicles is the one from the Old Codger division—Buick (hmm, I better be careful: I drive an 11-year-old Buick, so I may fall into the category of old Buick codger). At the time that professional golfer Tiger Woods signed a multi-million dollar deal to serve as Buick's spokesperson, most looked upon it as a strange match. The most visible and dominating under-25 athlete in the world signs with a brand that had been in decline for decades. And even worse, their customers were in the sixties—no, not born in the 1960s—but in their sixties! Is it possible that this strange match may actually save the division? The Bengal (as in Bengal Tiger) is a stunning concept that suggests maybe for the first time in—well, decades—Buick might have a pulse. The 2+2 convertible has lines that if delivered would blow the doors off the new T-bird. One could actually see Tiger driving the Bengal—which is not something you can say about any other car in the Buick line-up. The Buick Lacrosse, a concept vehicle from 2000, and the soon-to-be released Buick Rendezvous give the division some glimmer of hope. Can Tiger Woods change the way Buick perceives itself, and in the process, change the way the under-60 crowd sees the brand? The Bengal would be an impressive start.

The Oldsmobile O4 is also an impressive styling exercise. The O4 builds on the design theme set forth by the Intrigue and the Aurora—two vehicles that have been warmly received by the press, but not necessarily the consumer. The concept uses the Opel Astra chassis, as an example of further leveraging the global strengths of the company.

The Pontiac Rev and the Chevrolet Borrego seemed to be aimed squarely at the young, but they also might give some indication of how GM will leverage their global partners in the future. The Borrego is a two seat crossover-pickup truck, (think highly updated Subaru Brat) with a convertible mid-gate that allows for two-plus-two seating. The Chevrolet concept includes an all-wheel drivetrain borrowed from Subaru, one of GM strategic partners. The Rev, also a crossover activity vehicle, might give a hint of the crossover vehicle that is likely to be produced at NUMMI after the demise of the Chevy Prizm.

At the other end of the design scale, the Cadillac Vizon and the GMC Terracross continue familiar if not appreciated design themes. According to the company, the Cadillac Vizon slices boldly into the gap between sport utility vehicles and sport/performance wagons with sharp-edged Cadillac style. The Vizon bears a strong family resemblance to previous GM show cars, including the soon to be produced Evoq. The Vizon is likely a styling statement for the upcoming SUV crossover to be built at the new Grand River Assembly plant in Lansing, MI. The Terracross also continues a theme set forth in previous years. GMC is trying to position itself as the “professional grade” product line. Picture if you will a stainless steel kitchen—that is professional grade.

One of the great aspects of my job is the frequent opportunities I get to talk to the UAW members that build GM cars and trucks via joint education programs. It offers a forum that few industry observers get. I recently had the opportunity to get a little feedback on the new concepts from a very diverse group of UAW-GM members. Let it be known that there are fewer groups that are more critical of GM's recent design themes than the membership (with the exception of a few GM executives). Theirs was an interesting—and telling—response. None of the members guessed that the Bengal was a Buick; most figured it was German—it looked way to good to come out of the GM Design Studio. Both the Rev and the Borrego were strongly endorsed by the new hires (almost young enough to be Echo-boomers) in the crowd. While the concepts show that there is life at the old General, there must be a willingness—and ability—to deliver. And delivering is something that GM has failed to do for a quarter of a century.

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