New model parade has few real grabbers

If and when General Motors Corp.'s product development and brand management schemes begin to click, GM just may stop losing market share and start building more competitive vehicles.

But a tour of the January North American International Auto Show in Detroit suggested, to me at least, that GM still has some distance to go in creating cars and trucks that get the blood pumping.

You can talk all day about your product's fine attributes, but in today's tough, sophisticated market brimming with innovative designs, it takes more than talk to lure folks into your showrooms.

While many other displays - notably Chrysler Corp.'s - were filled with eyecatching grabbers, some of which go on sale soon, GM's exhibits seemed stark and barren by comparison. Sure there were some neat GM concept vehicles like the Buick Signia shown on this month's cover. But my overall impression is that GM, the outfit that invented automotive styling, has become far too conservative. A few examples:

n GM's new full-size pickups (see story p.44): GM is spending $6 billion on the new models and their derivatives, and by most accounts they will be technically and mechanically superior. But they simply do not look all that new, and certainly are nowhere near as eye-catching as the "teaser" renderings of the trucks GM sent out late last year to stir up advance publicity. When Dodge and Ford revamped their pickups earlier in the '90s, there was no mistaking their advanced styling. Not so GM. It's like Generation Xers vs. the baby boomers.

n Oldsmobile Alero. The new compact Olds made its world premiere at the Detroit show, and it's more than a worthy successor to the clunky Achieva. But there are few clues that say this is something truly new. Similarly, the Olds Intrigue introduced last fall has received generally good reviews for ride, handling and performance. But where is its "wow!" appeal?

There's much to be said about "evolutionary" design. The two best-selling cars in America, Toyota Camry (revamped for 1997) and Honda Accord (revamped for 1998), aren't all that visually different from their predecessors. They're successful because they just keep getting better; their reputation precedes them.

Attempting to compete against them and other strong contenders with cars bearing new names and nomenclatures is tough enough, let alone with so-called "all-new" models that lack creative spark.

And that doesn't necessarily mean going off the deep end. Two of the biggest attractions at the Detroit auto show were Volkswagen's New Beetle and Mercury's 1999 Cougar, a study in contrast but both possessing "first-on-the-block" appeal.

The New Beetle is nothing like the beloved Bug of old under the skin, but nostalgia freaks - and quite possibly a new band of Beetle-lovers - clearly are entranced by the revival of the Beetle's distinct silhouette.

The '99 Cougar is the first American car to feature Ford's "new edge" styling, and it's a totally different car than the prior model: much smaller, sportier and from every angle a car that won't be lost in the crowd.

GM is introducing a wave of new models and apparently believes that once they are fully launched, its prospects will brighten. Maybe so, but brand marketing can only go so far. The brand has to stand for something, and that gets back to how the product is perceived. If it makes a weak statement in the eyes of the potential beholders, it becomes a tough sell.

What GM needs is a product champion like Chrysler's Bob Lutz or Ford's Jacques Nasser with the instincts and clout to fire up the bureaucracies and take some chances if it hopes to recapture design leadership.

Shorter term, GM could present a much stronger presence in the public's mind if it grouped all of its divisions' products together in one massive exhibit in the nation's major auto shows.

That's not too different from the big, exciting extravaganzas GM staged in the '50s and '60s when it reigned as the king of automotive design. Maybe it's time to seriously examine what made GM great and return to its roots: The products.

Ward's Auto World in January won two first place spots among nearly 200 entries in the annual International Wheel Awards global competition sponsored by the Detroit Press Foundation for articles that appeared during the 1997 model year.

Our March team effort entitled "Engineers and the Law" finished first in the special interest automotive publication category, and Editor-in-Chief Dave Smith's piece on the Plymouth Prowler published in June took top honors in the product review category.

Besides Mr. Smith, the WAW "Engineers and the Law" team included Executive Editor Drew Winter, Senior Editor Greg Gardner, Associate Editor Tim Keenan and Jeff Green, senior associate editor of Ward's Automotive Reports.

"While winning awards is gratifying, what it really says is that Ward's Auto World is reported, written and edited for the folks who count: Our readers," says Publisher Roger K. Powers. "To me, the two go hand in hand: Editorial excellence equals outstanding readership. That's an unbeatable combination, and the awards serve to confirm our dedication to putting the reader first."