Blog: General Motors 4.0 - Pay Attention to the Genesis

By Tom Martin

June 23, 2009

General Motors is going through a metamorphosis, as you know. Actually, this isn’t the first time. GM 1.0 was the emergent GM—a collection of disparate and dysfunctional brands (Chevrolet, Oakland/Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac) and parts makers assembled before and immediately after WWI by William Durant and others. GM 2.0 is the professional GM created by Alfred Sloan, starting in 1923. Sloan and his successors created an organizational structure focused on distinct market segments bolstered by a culture of strong styling and R&D. GM 2.0 worked from the ‘20s through the ‘60s and generally is viewed as GM’s best incarnation. GM 3.0 is the cancerous GM beset by bad labor contracts, difficulty coping with international competition and excess capacity. GM 3.0 begins roughly with the oil crisis of 1973 and extends to 2009. GM 4.0 is the post-bankruptcy GM. This series covers issues with the direction of GM 4.0.

By happenstance, we had the Chevrolet Corvette and the Hyundai Genesis Coupe in the office during the same week recently. I found driving these two sports coupes back-to-back a fascinating exercise with implications for GM 4.0 and GM CEO Fritz Henderson. Below is my (imagined) consultative letter to Fritz.

Dear Fritz:

My first basic suggestion: buy a Genesis Coupe for every division head, engineering VP and product marketing executive at GM. Get one for Ed Whitacre (new GM Chairman) while you’re at it. Make them drive the Genesis Coupe for 3 months. Intersperse that driving experience with a selection of GM cars (Malibu, Corvette, CTS, LaCrosse, Solstice). Make sure the Monroney for the Genesis is in the glove box. Schedule them on trips to California, Texas and Georgia -- parts of the country where roads have turns and have been repaired in the last decade. Have each person write a report on what needs to change in GM 4.0 so that cars like the Genesis happen regularly.

I think this could be inspirational. And you know and I know and everyone else knows your team needs some inspiration right now. Heck, the public might even be inspired if they thought you were trying to conceive some bold moves.

The first thing your execs will notice, if they aren’t brain dead yet (fortunately, shock and brain death aren’t the same thing), is that the Genesis is a pretty darn good car all around. The biggest thing in my mind is that the Genesis feels very solid. The Gen Coupe doesn’t feel heavy, but the body structure is tight and the car drives like it is well engineered. The handling is good, and so is the ride. If your team is honest, GM cars don’t feel like this. They feel rubbery and coarse. They feel fragile or ponderous. I’ve talked to lots of your engineers, and they really know what they’re doing, so there isn’t anything Hyundai has done that you can’t. Hence, inspiration. Remember, this is Hyundai we’re talking about (e.g. the company of the Accent, Elantra, Tucson, and Sonata – cars more drab than many you make every day).

The second thing your execs will notice is that the design and finish of the Genesis Coupe are tasteful though stylish from top to bottom. Again, you can’t really describe your many of your cars as tasteful. The materials in the Corvette for example are a pastiche of clashing, mostly cheap, surfaces. The CTS has a design theme, which is good, but again uses more materials than are really helpful. And chrome, well, don’t get me going on your repeated attempts to distract consumers from bad design by slathering on the chrome. All of this sounds hopeless, but there is good work amongst your mistakes, your work just lacks consistency. And if your team is forward-looking, they’ll realize that the Koreans aren’t exactly world-class on the design front. If they can do it, so can you.

The third thing they’ll notice is that there are chinks in the Genesis armor. The seats, while better than the horrible chairs you’ve stuck in the Corvette for years, aren’t that comfortable for long drives. The shift mechanism is badly designed. And there’s that funky rear quarter window dip that everyone wonders about. Moreover, the Genesis Coupe, while nice to drive, doesn’t stand out as great in any particular way.

While the Genesis Coupe is very impressive, you can do better. Of course, you’ll never do better if you just try to match some interesting car selected by a journalist. The Genesis Coupe is there to suggest that your team can compete. That said, you actually need an idea of what each of your cars is distinctively about. But since so many competing brands are well engineered but nearly passion-free that shouldn’t be too hard. With a little work, you might even surpass, in certain ways, what Europe and Asia are bringing to us.

Think it over. You might conclude that this inspiration stuff feels pretty good compared to Senate subcommittee hearings and visits from the Automotive Task Force.