Bob Lutz has high praise for Rick Wagoner. But maybe that’s to be expected. After all, Rick is his boss.

Lutz is vice chairman of product development at General Motors Corp. Wagoner is chairman, president and CEO.

“I think he’s far and away the best boss I’ve ever had,” says Lutz, who has worked under some big-time bosses, including Chairman Lee A. Iacocca at Chrysler Corp., where Lutz rose to vice chairman before retiring eight years ago.

“Intellectually, I just feel comfortable (with Rick). It’s close to ideal,” Lutz says. He recognizes my particular skills, and he also has fairly good product instincts himself and is getting better all the time. He stays involved and asks a lot of questions. He’s very self-effacing.”

Not that they always see eye-to-eye. “Yeah, sometimes we don’t,” says Lutz.

“But he says it’s healthy we have these disagreements. We’re 90% aligned and 10% not. But then we can have a healthy discussion. Too many people don’t want to take him on, but I’m bulletproof because I don’t worry about my next job; my career is (basically) behind me.

“He may dislike (disagreements), but too many people won’t argue. When I have a confrontation, there’s push and shove but then a decision is made.”

Lutz was recruited five years ago by Wagoner and, as he approaches 75, says he expects to stay on until he’s 80, health permitting. If he didn’t get along with Wagoner, and vice versa, it’s not likely he would hang around.

As GM’s resident “car guy,” Lutz has moved to solidify GM’s product development worldwide and to kick-start its once moribund designs, concentrating not only on exteriors but interiors as well.

Lutz’s report card is mixed so far. Since he joined GM, there have been a few hits such as the low-volume Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky 2-seat roadsters; Chevy HHR; Cadillac CTS, and Buick Lucerne.

The Cadillac STS and DTS also have been revamped under his watch, with less success in the marketplace.

Other models have been upgraded in all of GM’s truck lines, and the wave of all-new fullsize SUVs and light trucks now entering the market has gotten high marks so far, especially for their interiors.

His early attempt to quickly rekindle the passion for Pontiac’s GTO icon by grabbing an existing car from GM’s Australian operations failed chiefly because it lacks styling pizzazz. GM’s redesigned compact pickups also have been branded yawners.

Lutz concedes much more needs to be done to reverse GM’s stodgy design reputation, and he sounds like a little boy in a toy store when he talks about future products. “Wait’ll you see the new CTS” that’s likely coming in 2008,” he exclaims.

And Lutz says Wagoner is pushing for even stronger, bolder designs.

That wasn’t the case at the former Chrysler Corp. when Lutz joined in 1986. Then-chairman Iacocca still was pushing “fake wire wheels and vinyl roofs,” he says.

“He didn’t match the cars with this age-wave thing (that is, looking ahead), whereas Rick has a deep understanding of design trends. Even if he’s uncomfortable, he’ll ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’ If you explain why, then it becomes plausible.”

Wagoner and Lutz did not initially agree on how to position the revived Chevrolet Camaro, which went out of production in 2002 after a 35-year run.

Wagoner gave the green light to build the new car in August, and GM’s Oshawa, Ont., Canada, assembly plant subsequently was chosen to launch production in late 2008 as an ’09 model.

A production target of 100,000 units annually has been mentioned.

Reminiscent of the ’69 Camaro, the new version is said to be almost identical to the concept car that elicited rave reviews when it was unveiled in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Was it a tough sell to convince Wagoner to green-light the project?

“Not at all,” Lutz says, although, “Initially we had a spirited discussion. Rick felt the first thing we should do is a 4-door (referring to a potential sedan derivative off the same global rear-wheel-drive architecture as the Camaro being developed by GM Holden Ltd. in Australia) because that would produce more revenues than a ‘pony car’ (like Camaro).

“I agreed, but I said first we should be highly emotional and do a killer car and change the sequence,” Lutz recalls. “He finally agreed with me, and then we’ll do the 4-door,”Lutz says.

Lutz didn’t want a Camaro reincarnation for “5,000 or 6,000 owners-collectors,” he says.

“I thought we should go well beyond the ’69. Rick said, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ One (design) group had been struggling to get it right, and then the second group came up with theirs, and I said, ‘Hot dog!’ and Rick agreed.”

After leaving Chrysler, Lutz moved on to become chairman of Exide Technologies, best known for making batteries. He says many of his colleagues and associates kept hammering away about GM’s lack of a bona fide “car guy,” who has unique product instincts because GM’s “brand management” scheme “was not paying out.”

Wagoner and Lutz did not know each other well, except by reputation. By coincidence, Wagoner introduced Lutz during a speaking engagement in mid-2001 at the Orchard Lake Country Club in suburban Detroit.

“I sat at his table, and he asked me what I would do differently at GM,” Lutz recalls. “I poured it on to him. He said, ‘You’ve got a lot of opinions,’” which is hardly news to anyone who knows Lutz.

A few weeks later, Lutz and Wagoner met at Lutz’s office in Ann Arbor, MI. As Lutz recounts the meeting, Wagoner said he wanted a product guru “wired like you are,” and asked if Lutz knew any 50-year-olds who met his criteria and might be available.

“There probably is one maybe in Europe or Japan or maybe GM, but I don’t know one,” Lutz recalls. “I’m somewhat unique. I’m a car nut, but I also have an MBA (from the University of California-Berkeley, 1962). Most car nuts are into hot rods” but lack the combination of business skills as well.”

With that, Wagoner asked if Lutz might consider becoming a consultant to GM. “I said, if I was a consultant no one would listen to me,” Lutz says. “Then he said, ‘Would you consider yourself?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely.’”

And that’s how Lutz wound up as Wagoner’s “car guy.” At first it was to be a 3-year contract starting in August 2001, but it ultimately was extended to December 2005. “Since then, I’ve been a regular employee,” says Lutz, who may still be around in 2012. “Why not if I feel good, especially now when it’s so exciting?”