JOLIET, IL – The U.S. should suspend crash-testing requirements in order to allow auto makers to speed more fuel-efficient models to the market, says Bob Lutz,Corp.’s vice chairman and product-development chief.
In a wide-ranging interview here at a preview of ’09 models, Lutz denies there are plans to drop the Saturn Outlook cross/utility vehicle, as has been widely speculated, and he reveals retail customers won’t be able to get behind the wheel of a new Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle before November 2010.
In addition, Lutz says GM is worried about the future of its Corvette sports car as a result of tightening fuel-economy regulations.
“I’m not going to get into individuals, but I will tell you what we want from whoever it is,” Lutz says when asked which of the two major-party presidential candidates would benefit the auto industry more. “We have tremendous pressure from mandates on fuel economy and safety that are going to add weight to vehicles, and so we are victims of the federal government.
“So it’s not unreasonable to request federal loan guarantees from the government to fund the new technology needed to meet the mileage and safety mandates.”
Detroit-based auto makers are lobbying for a $50 billion federal financing package to fund product development and retooling to more fuel-efficient vehicles.
“We also would like a 3-year moratorium on certain U.S. front- and side-impact crash test regulations,” Lutz adds. “The regulations impact our ability to bring in several high-mileage small cars we make elsewhere in the world.
“In Europe, the crash-test procedures are different than in the U.S., so the tests are different. If our government says cars that meet crash tests in other countries are good enough to be sold here, we would have more high-mileage, small-car flexibility.”
As for the Saturn Outlook being discontinued now that the more volume-oriented Chevrolet Traverse is hitting the market, Lutz says simply, “No Lambda-based crossover will be dropped.”
He does reconfirm that plans for fullsize rear-drive Chevrolet and Buick have been cancelled due to higher gasoline prices. Also impacted is the new Camaro sports coupe set to roll out.
“I get letters from people saying they heard we were going to add a supercharged 600-hp V-8 to the Camaro lineup, and I write back saying ‘Sorry, with new (corporate average fuel economy) standards (for 2020), we aren’t going to do it.”
The new minimum CAFE standard of 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) in 2020 and additional pressure from California and 15 other states to limit carbon dioxide is part of what may forceLLC to jettison its Viper high-performance model. Chrysler said this week it was examining options for its Viper business, including a sale.
“Setting lower CO2 limits would equal setting CAFE at 43 mpg (5.5 L/100 km),” Lutz says. “This is why the sale of the Dodge Viper bymakes sense, because anyone selling fewer than 50,000 vehicles annually would be exempt (from fuel-economy requirements).
“So if someone else bought Viper, they could sell to capacity, but Chrysler couldn’t. This is why we are concerned about Corvette.
“The reason California set the exemption for less than 50,000 units is that it would mean the Hollywood folks could keep driving their Lamborghinis and Ferraris.”
Based on the 50,000-unit exemption “Porsche could sell 11-mpg (21.4 L/100 km) Cayennes, but we couldn’t sell 20-mpg (11.8 L/100 km) Chevy Tahoes,” Lutz adds.
GM is happy with the pace of battery development for the Volt, but he emphasizes the car won’t be available to the public any earlier than 26 months from now.
“The batteries have proven trouble free,” he says. “It’s almost frightening.
“We’ll start releasing (the car) to the public in November of 2010. No one, no one, will get one any earlier,” he says, adding “the first generation won’t be profitable.”
Asked how auto makers will generate profits from small cars, Lutz says, “Profits follow demand. When SUVs were in big demand it meant profits. When small cars are in big demand, it will mean profits.
“The Chevy Malibu transaction price is up by $4,000 this year because it is in big demand,” he says. “The old Malibu it replaced we had to give away with incentives.”
Meanwhile, Lutz continues to insist retirement isn’t on his radar screen.
“I have no plans to retire,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean someday Rick (Wagoner, GM’s chairman) or the board might say, ‘Hey, you’re starting to ramble.’”
Lutz, who notes he is “76-and-a-half” says, “When I’m 80 we’ll have a party in my office and have cake.”
But he concedes he has made some concessions to age.
“I’m not shy about taking my vacation time, I just don’t take it all at once,” he says. “As I get older, I think I’ll probably take more time off.
“I think I’ve figured out the perfect work week – Fridays and Mondays off.”