Stodgy GM lusts for pizazz

74-year--old reformer reignites creative side in bid to produce head-turning cars

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November 08, 2006|By Rick Popely | Rick Popely,Chicago Tribune

WARREN, Mich. -- As Robert A. "Bob" Lutz walks briskly from studio to studio at the General Motors Design Center, it's clear he is charged up.

"Wait till you see what they're doing in here," he says. "This is where the creativity is, in design."

After years of stifling management and a risk-averse culture, the design inmates reportedly are running the asylum under Lutz, GM's 74-year-old vice chairman and global product czar.

Lutz says empowered designers are creating eye-catching cars and trucks, which could be key to the survival and turnaround of the ailing automaker.

"This place is so switched on," Lutz says of GM's design team. "There's a sense we're winning again. GM is back to being a design-driven company."

Before Lutz joined GM five years ago, product planners and brand managers were in charge of individual models and dictated a car's dimensions and proportions, leaving little room for creativity.

Lutz has turned that world upside down.

"We have to ensure that new ideas come from design and let the other people figure out how to make it work," he said.

With GM and Ford pulling closer to Toyota and Honda in providing solid, reliable transportation, Lutz says "design [is] the last great differentiator. That's our one big weapon, that must-have appeal."

Japanese brands are not noted for styling, and "this is where GM has an opportunity. They can out-style Toyota and Honda and attract attention in the market," said Gerald C. Meyers, who retired as chairman of American Motors Corp. in 1984.

And with head-turning models in its pipeline and significant progress in cutting costs, GM seems more confident of its future, as demonstrated by its reluctance to be pushed into an alliance with Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co.

GM Chief Executive Officer G. Richard Wagoner Jr. hired Lutz to tap his instincts for what people want to buy, a design-driven philosophy honed over 40 years at various car companies.

It takes years for designs to make it into the marketplace. So Lutz's magic touch wasn't noticeable until the 2006 Pontiac Solstice, a stylish roadster, whose U.S. sales have passed the Mazda Miata, which dominated that niche for 15 years. His influence also will be on display in the 2007 Saturn Aura sedan and Chevrolet Camaro concept car, which will be built for 2009.

The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac CTS are even more Lutzian, says analyst John Wolkonowicz of industry forecaster Global Insight. Wolkonowicz describes the Malibu as "simply gorgeous" and calls the CTS the industry's "next design leader."

Both will debut in January at the Detroit Auto Show.

CTS, Malibu and Camaro also have burnished GM's image on Wall Street. And product analysts such as Wolkonowicz see them slowing or even halting the automaker's market share decline in the United States, which has fallen to 24.7 percent from 28.3 in 2001. "I'm very bullish on General Motors right now and very bullish on Bob Lutz," whom Wolkonowicz describes as the man with the "golden gut."

"He's going to go down as the man who saved General Motors," he said.

Ford Motor Co. is wrestling with problems akin to GM's five years ago, but without trend-setting models in its pipeline or a product czar like Lutz, Wolkonowicz says. In fact, Ford has had three people in the "Lutz" role in the five years Lutz has been GM's product chief.

"I don't see anything in Ford's plan that is going to be a linchpin for them, like a 1986 [Ford] Taurus [which became the top-selling passenger car in the U.S. from 1992 to 1996]. They need two or three like that. I do see some '86 Taurus-like models in GM's product plan," said Wolkonowicz, a product planner for Ford in the 1980s.

Ford says it has the wraps on five models to debut in 2008 or later. Derrick Kuzak, its latest product development director, was not available for an interview.

Erich Merkle, an analyst with IRN Inc., says Ford, for one, relies too heavily on market research that surveys consumers about what they want and how much they'll pay. GM did, too - before Lutz.

The result: bland sedans like the Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Five Hundred, which offer plenty of room but no verve.

"Sometimes the consumer doesn't know what they're looking for because they have no point of reference," Merkle said. "When it comes to the design of the vehicle, there is a certain amount of risk-taking. There's no way you can measure the market's reaction to a vehicle's design."

But design studios can make creative hunches, and that's where Lutz's presence has paid dividends.

Though he was chairman and chief executive of Exide Technologies before he joined GM and once was considered a potential successor to Lee Iacocca at Chrysler, Lutz says he's happier in his current role instead of poring over financial reports.

"This is the best job I've ever had. I don't have to pretend I'm something I'm not. I just have to do what I do best," he said. "You can't have a CEO who's a hip-shooter."

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