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z28luvr01

C&G @ NYIAS: Impressions

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C&G @ NYIAS: Impressions

by z28luvr01

Well, it's been just over a week since the NYIAS press days, and what better way to round out my coverage than by writing a few words about my overall impressions of the events? For two days I got to live the life of an automotive journalist, witnessing debuts first-hand, speaking with people within GM, and acquiring a perspective on the company that can't really be gotten from attending the show when it's open to the public. I am delighted and honored to have been given the opportunity to attend the press days, and I have to take a moment to thank Doug Wernert and Mary Horvat of Weber-Shadwick (GM's PR firm) for doing whatever it took to make this happen, and a special thank you goes to Mary for her support while at the show. If you have some free time, check out the website they're working on: GMNext, GM's official site commemorating its 100th anniversary, and a look toward the company's next 100 years.

Before I get into speaking about specific brands, I want to say a few words on my impressions of GM as a whole, as what I got from this show is perhaps the greatest indicator of the company's future. While talking to executives, designers, and engineers, I got the impression that, clearly, this is not your father's GM, or even your older brother's GM. Things are changing inside the company, for the better. The sampling I got of the GM's corporate culture is overwhelmingly positive. Everyone I spoke to took a great deal of pride in their job, and spoke about the cars or brands they were responsible for as if they were their own children. At the debuts, these men were standing alongside their cars basking in the moment, their faces beaming with enthusiasm. Contentment with present successes is only one side of the story, however. The people within GM seem excited and enthusiastic about the future. With the new CAFE regulations upon us and the CO2 regulations coming, you'd think GM employees would be overcome with fear and uncertainty. That clearly was not the face. These people are ready and willing to face the challenges ahead of them head on and overcome them with innovation rather than create a less desirable car. Morale is high despite apparent uncertainty, and it does not take a Master's degree in management to see that bodes well for GM's future.

Much of this change can be attributed to Bob Lutz' halo effect on GM. The GM employees I spoke to generally love working for him. Sure, they sometimes have to do damage control after one of his interviews, but it's worth it. He's a straight shooter who never follows the script and says what's on his mind - just the kind of bold, brash attitude that GM had needed for a long time. In an industry that has trended towards safe, reliable, quality products, Lutz brought a renewed emphasis on forward thinking and ground-breaking design. Pontiac executives in particular threw their support behind him after he called out a journalist who had some not-so-nice things to say about the then-new 2004 Grand Prix. For those who don't remember, Lutz challenged the journalist to a side-by side comparison between the GP and a car of his own choosing, which ended up being a 2004 Maxima. After driving both back-to-back, the journalist admitted to Lutz that the Pontiac was the better car. His vehement defense of his company's product eventually permeated the rest of the company, and over the next couple of years GM's unsure slouch was replaced with a confident swagger that can be seen in its products. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this change in culture is the fact that it's no longer tied to Lutz alone. At the Volt Nation event, when asked about the aftermath of his eventual retirement, Lutz proudly declared that even if he were to leave, GM management understands that a bold, risk taking approach is the only way for GM to be the best, and that retreating to mid-pack competence is a recipe for failure.

Though not every GM car I encountered meets my personal preferences, I nonetheless could feel, see, and hear the new GM in every one. Below summarizes my thoughts on each brand's presence at the show.

Buick

It's easy to see that Buick is a brand in transition. I know, I know - they've been "in transition" for several years now. This time, though, it's serious. The LaCrosse and Lucerne represent remnants of the half-hearted approach that GM has been taking with Buick since arguably the early 90s. Though the new noses on each of the cars do add a little something, after spending some time with the Enclave and Riviera concept I can't wait to see those old relics put out to pasture. The Enclave is everything Buick should be - a bold, romantic design that proudly announces the arrival of its driver coupled with a flowing, graceful yet well-built interior that's not so much a passenger cabin as it is a sanctuary. The Enclave doesn't try to compete with Lexus - it's a Buick that forces Lexus to compete with it.

I'm further encouraged by where Buick is going. Buick fans in North America have long looked at Buick of China's lineup with envy. That time is about to come to an end, as both arms of Buick are collaborating on vehicles designed to sell in both markets. The Riviera concept represents the first fruits of this joint venture of sorts. The car is stunning in person, and its design language is a perfect progression of that introduced by the Velite concept from a few years back and carried over onto the Enclave. Buick's future looks extremely bright - it's success in China virtually guarantees it a spot in the GMNA lineup. With CAFE and CO2 regulations looming, Buick of China's experience building fuel efficient engines will no doubt play a part in helping Buick North America field a more economical lineup.

Cadillac

The obvious highlight for me was the C series cars. I got my first tast of the new CTS, and this car is amazing looking. Though it's actually bigger than its precedessor, it actually appears smaller, no doubt due to it's no-nonsense stance and taut proportions. Occupying the inside of the CTS is one of the nicest interiors I've ever encountered. Gone is the Dell Dimension GX620 center stack and weirdly shaped dash surfaces, and in their place is a center stack and dashboard that's artful, yet techy at the same time. I'd love to snag a test drive of one of these someday. As good as the sedan is, the coupe is just jaw dropping in person. It draws your attention as soon as it comes into view. I truly hope GM changes nothing on it in making the production version, because this car has the chance to be the latest iconic Cadillac. The CTS-V's definitely looks the part of an M5 slayer. The front fascia is admittedly a little over the top, but if you think that'll make me turn down 550hp, you've got another guess coming.

I'm one of the few supporters of the STS, and I think the 08 refresh really does help the car. I never liked the big plastic grilles that adorned the first Art & Science cars, so the new grille transforms the front for me. The STS-V is still hot, in my opinion. The interior design doesn't seem to be aging that well, but it's still well put together for the most part. I'm not sure how much longer Cadillac plans to keep churning this car out, but if it's for a couple more years, how about throwing in the Chinese SLS interior?

I have mixed thoughts about the Provoq (the thinly disguised BRX). On one hand, it's a great looking SUV for Cadillac that's much more attractive than the SRX, itself no ugly duckling. Still, I can't get over the fact that it's a front drive vehicle in a brand that needs to be all RWD to gain complete acceptance among shoppers of high-end cars. I'm sure it'll do all right sales wise based on how it looks, but is it worth compromising the brand's mission? If cost was the reason for using the Theta/Epsilon architecture, they could have used Zeta and still kept the driving dynamics that are one of the SRX's strongest selling points. Weight savings and fuel economy can't be the reason, as the SRX and BRX are nearly identical in weight. The decision to re-introduce front drive to Cadillac gives me the impression that Cadillac has had its focus taken away from it. Hopefully the BRX is an aberration and not the start of a trend.

Chevrolet

Chevy didn't put the Bumblebee Camaro out for press days, so I'll have to wait another year to get my chance to get up close to one. The ZR1's appearance changes over the standard Z06, though technically minimal, make the car look much more menacing and sinister. I can't wait for some road tests of that beast to start hitting the press. On a much more affordable note, I got to sample the HHR SS and I have to say it's a very interesting little package. The exterior and (especially) interior upgrades do a lot for the HHR's appearance, and it seems to dull the overall retro feel that more plebeian versions of it have. Oh, and it has 260hp and a Nurburgring-tuned suspension. Conspicuously absent (in my opinion) was the turbocharged Cobalt SS - I think it should have been there to help keep the enthusiasm for the SS badge. I'd really like to have seen how the spruced up interior played out in person. Chevy did have two Cobalt sports on display; one was an Imperial Blue Metallic sedan and the other was a Rally Yellow coupe. Plenty of Malibus were on hand, and despite being in the public eye for over a year now, the car still attracts attention as if it's being unveiled for the first time. Interesting side note: Chevy had the Malibus positioned right near the border of the Toyota display. A not-so-subtle gesture, perhaps? The Traverse appears to be very well executed. It's easy to see that there were no compromises made on it just because it was designed for GM's entry-level brand.

It's been over a year, but I finally came face to face with the Volt for the first time. After seeing it in pictures I can appreciate how its designers successfully intertwined form and function, proving that not every green car needs to be grotesquely ugly. Hopefully the production version loses little of the concept cars visual appeal in the quest to make it even more aerodynamic. The teaser shot we've all seen of the production front is promising. It became obvious at the Volt Nation event that this car is at the top of GM's priority list. They understand that the company's reputation as a leader in design and technology hangs in the balance, and consequently it has the full unwavering support of Bob Lutz, the board of directors, and the rest of the powers that be at GM. I would expect it to happen even if the Volt team needs to work around the clock to do it.

GMC

The Denali XT concept highlighted my experience at the GMC exhibit. While some bits could probably stand to be toned down for a possible production version, I hope that it makes production with its styling largely intact. It's styling effectively hides the fact that's a unibody car-based vehicle, yet doesn't look goofy like the Ridgeline. What's most exciting about the XT, however, is the powertrain technoloy - it's a showcase of GM's currently available fuel-saving technologies: E-85, two-mode hybrid, and direct injection. Not only does the XT have the potential to change the midsized truck market (I'd buy it over a Colorado/Canyon any day), but its green powertrain could help the long-term viability of fellow Zeta platform-mates such as the G8 and Camaro. I got to experience an Acadia for the first time. Like the other Lambda vehicles, it's very well executed both inside and out.

Hummer

The HX was the main attraction at the Hummer display. I hope to see it make production as is, because I think it will be a huge hit for Hummer. All the off-road prowess and rugged looks are there, yet in a much more tidy, manageable package. I'm not sure if it'll sway Wrangler customers, but it is an interesting alternative and one that would round out the Hummer lineup quite nicely. The H3T wasn't exactly eye-catching, but I do prefer it to the Colorado/Canyon, and it did evoke memories of the long-deceased Jeep Comanche pickup, a tough little truck that took everything its owner threw at it (or slammed it into). With the H2 variants tucked in a corner more or less, I got the impression that Hummer realizes that it must downsize to remain viable. Public perception right now, in this era of environmental consciousness, is that Hummer represents all the evils of society and likely will be hit harder than most other GM brands as the company positions itself to satisfy the new CAFE regulations. The first shoes have already dropped: the H1 is already gone, and the H2's days are officially numbered. Hummer clearly has its work cut out for it.

Pontiac

By now it's obvious that the Pontiac garnered the majority of the excitement for GM at the show. The press conference for the three debuts was borderline surreal. The event started out with a couple of songs by indie rock band The Young Lords, which created the perfect mood for the youthful exciting Pontiacs hidden behind the curtain. After seeing the Solstice coupe and the G8 GXP and Sport Truck, it would seem as though Pontiac's revival in North America is in full swing. The Solstice coupe is just gorgeous, arguably better so than the original coupe concept of 2002. It's quite a looker and, like the roadster, is a timeless design that generally eschews trendiness. It's a welcome addition to the Solstice lineup. I managed to catch a glimpse of Bruce Koshbab and David Poniatowski, two people largely responsible for the Solstice who I just happened to have dinner with the previous night, standing beside the coupe shortly after the press conference. I could only imagine what was going on inside of them, as their faces were brimming with joy.

The G8 GXP and Sport Truck make nice additions to the G8 family. While the run-of-the-mill G8 is beautiful in its own right, the appearance upgrades for the GXP really set it off. If it's not the best looking high performance sport sedan out there, it's in the top three. After admiring the Holden Ute from afar for so long, I appreciated the opportunity to finally see it first hand, albeit in Pontiac clothing. The Sport Truck actually fits in quite nicely at Pontiac. Forget for a minute that the El Camino ever existed, and you'll soon realize that Pontiac is the perfect place for such a vehicle. It's gorgeous, it's sporty, and it can handle an active youthful lifestyle. If they come out with a bed-mounted bike rack I just might bite.

Before the press conference I had the chance to get some seat time in a G8 GT, and I can't help but thank our friends at Holden for developing such a fine car. Exterior-wise, it's everything a Pontiac sedan needs to be - understated aggressiveness is the running theme. The huge wheel arches coupled with a nearly nonexistent front overhang gives it a ready-to-pounce stance. I've read some of the comments on here about the interior quality, so I made note to pay special attention to it. My conclusion is: everything is fine. Switchgear is all substantial feeling, and I have no complaints about the dash materials. No, it's not soft touch plastic...big deal. The upper dash pad is hard but covered in a thin rubbery, vinyl-ish material that gives the interior a bit of a techy feel to it. It's not what most would expect in this price segment, and I don't mean that in a bad way. It's got plenty of room, front and rear. Though enthusiasts will likely focus on acquiring a G8 GT, it'll be interesting to see how well the V6 model fares against similarly priced midsized sedans. Personally, I can't see going after a fully loaded Camry, Accord, or Altima when a much more satisfying car in the G8 can be had for the same price.

Beyond the G8 and Solstice families, Pontiac still has some work to do. Brushing aside my anti-Toyota stance, the new Vibe is OK, though I think a Delta-based, Ecotec powered version could be substantially better. There was little to no interest in the G6 GXP coupe that was there, even though it had the "premiere seat" on the floor between the Solstice GXP and G8 GT. The only reason I can think of for its apparent irrelevance is that it's hard to overcome ugly. The G6 family could certainly stand to receive a refresh inside and out, or better yet, be replaced by a similarly sized lineup of cars built on Alpha. There was no G5 on display, but it's not like I missed anything given that I drive a Cobalt every day. If GM is serious about making Pontiac once again known for bold, brash, performance vehicles, it has to refrain from giving the brand half-hearted efforts like these cars.

Saab

I admit that Saab is probably one of the last brands I'd ever consider buying a car from. My experiences at the show regarding Saab have served as a wake-up call for me, as it's quietly doing some of the most exciting things powertrain-wise in all of GM, while finally getting around to producing some good looking vehicles. I am intrigued by their BioHybrid and BioPower systems, both of which utilize engines designed from the ground up to use E-85. In truth, the move to renewable alternative fuels is a better long-term solution than just decreasing gasoline consumption, and despite Chevy's marketing efforts, Saab seems to be ethanol's strongest proponent from within GM. I only hope they can follow through with it and our infrastructure allows for ethanol to become more widely available. Overall, after years of mismanagement, it seems as though GM is finally figuring out what to do with the brand. If the 9-x and 9-4x are any indication of the brand's future, Saab might just be OK. The 9-x is a stunning little car that hopefully loses little if it goes into production as the 9-1, as rumored. I see it as more appealing Mini alternative whose styling is a lot less "kitsch". The 9-4x makes a far better SUV for Saab than the shameless rebadge that is the 9-7x. The '08 9-3 sports one of the best refresh jobs I've ever seen, and the time I spent in one was very pleasant. Everything about the car felt well made and solid. Overall I'm very excited about the Saab brand, and I expect the next 9-3 and 9-5 to be amazing. With the dollar situation being the way it is, Saabs are probably more expensive than they should be - perhaps producing models destined for the US in America alongside Malibus and G6s is a possible solution to that.

Saturn

The last time I gave the Saturn exhibit any serious attention, it was 2004 and I abruptly left it after briefly sampling an Ion quad coupe. Seeing both the front and rear doors buckle after I shut the driver's door pretty much sealed the deal for me - the Saturn of the time made garbage and did not deserve a second glance. What a difference four years made! The collaboration with Opel has done wonders for the brand. Every vehicle Saturn offers is a competitive offering in its segment. I spent a lot of time in the Sky, and while the mini-Corvette look does appeal to me a lot, I'll take the Solstice for its more timeless design. The new Vue is nice, especially on the inside. Everything in there felt solid and capable of handling the abuse normally given a family SUV. The Outlook is decent, though clearly the weakest of the Lambda crossovers. With the Traverse coming on board in likely the same price segment, I can see the Outlook being phased out eventually. They had a couple of Auras on display, and after all this time I'm still not warming up to the Morocco brown interior. In other combos the interior is rather nice. The Flextreme, while obviously too concept-ish for production, does show the possibility that the Volt may get a sister car sometime after production starts.

It's obvious to me now that Saturn has come a long way in just a short time., but I still have reservations about the brand that are more subjective in nature. I can't quantify it, but for some reason the brand just leaves me cold. Nothing exemplifies this better than my experience with the Astra. I've wanted it here ever since I first saw it as an Opel, and when it was announced that Opel would influence all future Saturns, I figured it was only a matter of time before it arrived on US shores. I finally got the chance to see one in person, and it is a very nice ride indeed. It has ample room for people and cargo. The car's design is pleasing inside and out, and it seems well constructed. Still, while in the driver's seat I felt...nothing. No desire to own it whatsoever even though it actually would make a very good car for me. I can't explain it, but the Astra just didn't grab me the way I expected it to. However, do not let this derail you from giving Saturn a chance. Every one is either class leading or class competitive and deserves a look.

Conclusion

I will not soon forget my time at the 2008 NYIAS press days. I got the opportunity to experience a side of the industry that few ever see. The events that took place heightened my excitement for GM and its future. The amazing new product offerings, all of which illicit praise among their customers and their creators alike, show that GM is serious about being a leader in this industry once again. Morale within the company seems to be on the upswing, and that couldn't come come at a better time given the uncertainty that faces the auto industry. I'm convinced that GM is willing, if not anxious, to come face to face with the challenges posed to it, overcome them with innovation and creativity, and further cement itself as the world's premier automaker.

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