A lot of photons have been shot at General Motors over the past 20 months or so, which I suppose comes with the territory when you run around with government bailout financiers. Beyond the cheap shots and ridiculously impractical advice, two themes seem to stand out and at least resonate a bit:
1. GM needs to build better cars
2. Ford is doing a better job
Both these themes work well in the media meat-grinder, because they’re so vaguely defined that you can hammer away at them for a long time. But is there really a case for either claim?
I suggest we dismiss the GM vs. Ford issue since it really doesn’t matter for consumers (if Mercedes is “doing better” than BMW, I still really don’t want an E-Class instead of a 5-Series). The GM/Ford thing is the effluence of the world’s love of sport and therefore sporting analogies in all things. But F1 or the World Cup, being the real thing, rate as vastly more compelling.
Should anyone insist on playing this GM/Ford match out, though, I will say the Mustang is better than the Camaro, the F-150 is better than the Silverado, and the Fiesta is the better than the Aveo. But, in the interests of fairness, the Buick LaCrosse is better than the Ford Taurus, the Cadillac CTS is better than the Lincoln MKS, and the Corvette is better that Ford’s no-show in the sports car category. I like the Flex and the Transit Connect, but the Enclave and the Terrain have their supporters. You get the idea: it’s swings and roundabouts. Or you just love a fight, and won’t be reasoned with.
When it comes to the idea that GM should build better cars, though, it is hard to argue. As an automotive journalist, I’ve pretty much signed on for life to the idea that cars can keep getting better. And, certainly in the case of GM, it would be difficult to claim that the apogee has been hit anywhere in the line. I can’t think of a GM brand that doesn’t have a few cars in need of a total refresh, along with several others that could use some improvements. But that’s also true of BMW and Honda.
The problem with ragging on GM is that it distracts you from seeing what is really going on, which is that GM is starting to crank out some rather desirable cars. Can it do this consistently enough for long enough? While that remains to be seen, the evidence is mounting that progress has been happening for a while.
Progress, though, really isn’t enough. What we really want is for GM to build cars that are better than the competition. The shocker for me in this regard was a recent taste of the new Buick Regal. I know I’m at risk of losing you at the mere mention of the word Buick, but stick with me, please. If you’re thinking of spending $28-30K on a new sedan, you’ve got to look at the Buick, and that’s because of the sedans in this price range that I’ve driven recently, the Buick is the best. Yes, that’s right: the best. Better than the Camry, better than the Accord, better than the Altima, better than the Mazda6, and competitive with the Volkswagen CC. Your criteria could easily be different than mine, but consider that Buick has created a car that is fully competitive in its class. And that class is the highest volume, most competitive class in the car world. It is also the most tepid, colorless and wallflower-driven segment of the market, so maybe Buick, like VW, reasoned that building a car that didn’t make you want to hit yourself with a blunt object every few miles was a good idea.
I have a copy in my office of David E. Davis’s seminal review of the BMW 2002 from 1968. The title of the story is “BMW Does It Again—10 Million Americans Won’t Even Know.” I had more than a small sense that the Buick Regal is like that. David E’s point was that a bunch of people (not 10 million, but who’s really counting?) were going to go out and buy a traditional sports car in 1968. The BMW 2002 was simply better than most of those cars at what they try to do well. The Buick Regal is not a BMW 2002 for the new decade. But with history wanting to roughly repeat itself, about 2 million people will buy a lame mid-priced 2011 sedan; instead they could have had a Buick Regal and actually enjoyed the drive.
I don’t doubt that Buick would like BMW and Mercedes to be thought of as its peers, but those German firms don’t make cars in this price range, and anyway, realism dictates that GM first create products than can compete with the mainstream leaders (Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Ford). What I think impressed me was that the Regal beats the mainstream leaders the way M-B and BMW would do it, which is to make a car that is more refined and more substantive to drive, while giving up a few features for the money. The wailing and gnashing of teeth can be heard halfway across the county when GM tries the other approach (piling features on a crude platform at a cut-rate price), so the Regal should be met with cheers and applause (not bloody likely, but I’m just sayin’…).
Oh, and Buick isn’t done yet, either. The obvious weakness in the Regal is the modestly endowed powerplant under the hood. But this fall the Regal gets an optional turbo four, with 258 pound-feet of torque (the base car has 172) and the ability to choose a manual gearbox. If that doesn’t do it, Buick will follow that car with the Regal GS, offering the manual with more power and AWD, along with some desirable styling tweaks. Point is that Buick isn’t rolling out a pretty good car and then sitting back and waiting to get pasted in the marketplace before it fills the holes in the options list.
One car does not a turnaround make. Building a good car doesn’t fix a brand. Nor does it address the depreciation that comes with letting the silverware tarnish for decades. But building on the base hits of the Enclave and the LaCrosse, the Regal could be the long ball that starts Buick on the path to real notoriety. Or maybe the Regal is so good it will fall on its face because this segment insists on mobile Wonder Bread. Chances are, 2 million people will never know this car is out there. As David E. said, “They deserve whatever they get.”
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