Thursday, June 22, 2006

GM hides fuel-efficient small cars and trucks -- in Brazil

Sunday, June 18, 2006
GM hides fuel-efficient small cars and trucks -- in Brazil
Warren Brown / The Washington Post

INDAIATUBA, Brazil -- Some of the best little vehicles made by General Motors Corp. are not sold in its home market, and therein lies one of the biggest misconceptions about the world's biggest car company.

On most North American lists of small cars and trucks, GM products are at the bottom, if they are included at all.

Through its South Korean subsidiary, GM Daewoo Auto and Technology, GM makes the tiny Chevrolet Aveo car available to American consumers. But that hardly makes an impression in a fuel-challenged market where small suddenly is big business and where two of GM's toughest foreign rivals, Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., are winning hearts and minds with little runners such as the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and small wagons and sport-utility vehicles such as the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.

Other Japanese manufacturers, including Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Suzuki Motor Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp. (controlled by Ford Motor Co.), are cranking up their small-car engines in response to U.S. consumer worry about rising gasoline prices. South Korean car companies, Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors, are increasing their offerings of small vehicles. And Chinese car companies are planning to join their Asian counterparts in America's small-car wars.

In those developments, GM seems invisible, apparently content with its current, albeit endangered, good luck in selling a slew of completely revised, but still gargantuan sport-utility vehicles and pickups. The public impression, at least in North America, is that GM does not care about small vehicles and that the company lacks both the will and the competence to produce them.

That is erroneous. But it's GM's fault.

Specifically, it is the fault of GM's North American marketing department and unions, which, for a variety of reasons and through myriad machinations, have kept highly desirable small GM vehicles out of the U.S. market at a time they are very much needed.

The truth, as evidenced by a sampling of GM of Brazil cars and trucks at the company's Cruz Alta Proving Ground here, is that GM can make small vehicles as well as anyone else. But the company is hampered by a North American marketing belief that American consumers won't buy those models, and by labor politics that prevents the U.S. entry of those little cars and trucks because they are not assembled by the United Auto Workers union.

For the record, that's my take. GM officials are loath to be so blunt. They proffer seemingly palatable excuses, such as the high cost of retrofitting their Brazilian models to comply with U.S. safety and emissions rules.

I reject that argument. I refuse to believe that a GM that could make a huge Chevrolet Tahoe sport-utility vehicle meet stringent U.S. safety and air-quality standards can't do the same thing for the car-based, subcompact Chevrolet Montana pickup truck sold here. It just doesn't wash.

That being the case, I humbly suggest to GM's marketing and union people that they rise above their biases, work out their differences, do whatever has to be done and move quickly to strengthen the company's flimsy North American small-ride lineup by allowing the U.S. import of the following GM of Brazil vehicles:

--The Chevrolet Montana Sport pickup truck, preferably equipped with the company's splendid 1.8-liter, four-cylinder FlexPower engine, which means it can run on a mixture of 20 percent ethanol and 80 percent gasoline, 100 percent ethanol or gasoline alone.

The FlexPower engine effectively allows consumers to play the fuel market in Brazil, where nearly all of the country's 29,000 filling stations offer an alcohol fuel option. When gasoline prices are high, they can switch to ethanol. When ethanol prices are high, they can switch to gasoline or a combination of gasoline and ethanol.

The Montana is based on GM's subcompact Corsa car. Its 1.8-liter FlexPower engine generates 112 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 174 foot-pounds of torque at 2,800 revolutions per minute. But it's a spunky, stable little thing at high speeds. Its five-speed manual shifter works smoothly. With its barely five-foot-long cargo box, it offers urban utility while minimizing urban parking hassles. The interior is one of the best looking I've seen in any small truck. It averages the U.S. equivalent of 35 miles per gallon on the highway.

--The Chevrolet Celta, a FlexPower one-liter, four-cylinder subcompact car that is too much of a lightweight for long U.S. highway runs. But it would be perfect for daily suburban-urban commuting. It gets the U.S. equivalent of 40 mpg. You can park it on a dime. It's the perfect car for academic and corporate campuses. The engine generates 70 horsepower at 6,400 revolutions per minute and 86 foot-pounds of torque at 3,200 revolutions per minute. Cute.

--The Chevrolet Corsa hatchback and Chevrolet Meriva city wagon, both of which are excellent substitutes for American-style minivans that are anything except "mini" and small-to-mid-size "crossover vehicles" that are minivans pretending to be sport-utility models.

The Meriva and Corsa are straightforward family mobiles, elegant in their overall simplicity, efficient and economical in operation, and beyond sensible in meeting the daily transportation needs of most American motorists and their families.

The Meriva city wagon and Corsa hatchback also come with GM's 1.8-liter, four-cylinder FlexPower engine. They are maneuverable as heck, and they both get a bit more than 30 miles per gallon.

I drove those vehicles and walked away from the GM of Brazil test track wondering aloud how a global car company filled with so many demonstrably talented and intelligent people could do something so dumb as to keep some of the best small vehicles made anywhere out of a market that's clamoring for those models.

It makes no sense. And to anyone offering the counter-argument that bringing in cars from Brazil will undermine GM's U.S. employment and labor-union relationships, I offer the following response:

Those jobs and relationships are being wrecked, anyway. They're being wrecked every time an American buys a small car from Honda, Toyota, Suzuki, Nissan, Hyundai or Kia. They're being hurt because of the UAW's failure to win the hearts, minds and dues of workers at those GM rival companies.

The bottom line is that if GM does not give the U.S. market the small vehicles America wants and needs, someone else will. That means a financially struggling GM will lose sales and market share. No company suffering those kinds of losses can offer anyone job security.


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