Commentary

I met Susan Docherty, General Motors’ new sales chief, in 2001 when she was Cadillac’s brand manager, and we drove together on a media test drive for the debuting Escalade EXT, an alloy of a luxury SUV and a pickup truck.

I liked her for various reasons. One, she complimented my driving abilities when I slowed down and waited for a road construction truck to get out of the way.

That maneuver was right out of Defensive Driving 101 – Rule No.23: Don’t drive into the side of a Class 8 truck if you can at all avoid it. But my braking action seemed relatively brilliant because earlier a fellow journalist, during his time behind the wheel of our Escalade rig, just about drove off the road for no apparent reason.

I also liked Docherty’s openness. She didn’t give away company secrets, but her candor was a refreshing contrast to programmed executives sticking to talking points.

She revealed how Ford had unnerved GM by unveiling the Lincoln Blackwood concept luxury sport/utility truck at the Detroit auto show in 1999. The reason for the dread: Cadillac had been busy working on its own impending so-called Sport Utility Truck, or SUT.

“When I saw the Blackwood at that auto show, I said, ‘Geez.’” Docherty recalled. “Some of our people panicked.” Calming the troops down, she said, “Chill out. Let’s stick to the plan.”

They did and Cadillac got to market first with the EXT in late 2001. Production snags held up the Blackwood launch, and plagued it throughout its brief run. The Blackwood lasted a little more than a year on the market. The EXT is still around.

Docherty also earns high marks as an inquiring auto executive. Members of the media note she often asks them what they think about a particular vehicle or an industry issue.

One journalist told me that during an interview with her she asked almost as many questions as he did, leaving him bemused because a PR handler had imposed a time limit.

Of course, the risk of asking auto journalists what they think about a new car is that they’ll list all the enhancements that should have gone into the vehicle, such as more engine power (always that), a key fob that also lowers a convertible’s roof and rocket boosters for taking flight if traffic jams get too odious.

Were auto makers to build cars to journalists’ whiz-bang specifications, a compact would end up costing $98,000.

For too many years though, GM (and others) went foolishly in the other direction. Engineers and designers would come up with decent vehicle proposals. Then the cost-cutters would go to work like slaughterhouse butchers.

The result of their dubious efforts typically was a second-rate version of a first-rate original idea. One way to tarnish an auto maker’s brand reputation is to build enough cheapo products for public consumption. That’s what happened to GM in decades past.

Then there was the platform sharing run amok, another ill-advised way to cut corners. Platform sharing is not a bad idea, if done properly. But it’s a brand killer when done wildly.

If the only real difference between a Cadillac and a Chevrolet is restyled sheet metal, why should consumers spend more for the Cadillac?

Then again, why buy a Chevy if you can find a better car? Consumers did and bought those from companies with better business plans and higher production standards.

Despite the fact GM now builds some exceptional vehicles, too many consumers remember the bad old days. Public perception changes slower than the reality of the quality improvements GM has accomplished in a remarkably short time, after it finally regained its sanity.

So, Docherty has her work cut out for her as the head of U.S. sales operations for a bloodied but not beaten auto maker.

Despite the troubles it has seen, GM still has much brainpower and employs many sharp people. Sue Docherty is one of them.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com