All the right stuff

Bob Lutz's new job is to tell General Motors what real people will like, and what they won't like. Very simple.

If he does it right, GM won't be making dead-on-arrival products such as the Pontiac Aztek. And GM won't sell to rental companies competent but tacky appliances, such as the Lumina, just for the profit.

More importantly, the company will make cars, trucks and in-betweeners that real people will actually want to buy.

It's so simple, you wonder why Jack Smith and Rick Wagoner didn't think of creating this job before.

In its nine years at the helm, the Smith/Wagoner regime has tightened up GM's finances and has created a common corporate culture that efficiently turns out high-quality vehicles that people don't care about and that lose market share every year. And at the top of GM, you couldn't find a 'car guy' with a microscope.

Wagoner's hiring of Chrysler's former spiritual leader now makes GM Rick's company. This is very un-GM-like: Wagoner drives out to Ann Arbor, Mich., to talk with an old critic of GM's cars and systems, then makes the guy vice chairman with carte blanche to direct the product portfolio.

Imagine: A septuagenarian Swiss-German businessman, born with a silver spoon in his mouth when Herbert Hoover was president, will be explaining average Americans and Europeans to this company in the 21st century.

Well, why not?

GM's own consumer research doesn't work. GM builds 3-D models of Americans' 'needs' and tries to create common-platform vehicles that will hit the sweet spot. But corporately, GM has no intuitive feel for normal people.

I recall sitting with a Chrysler designer a few years ago while we listened to a GM designer proudly explaining how GM was creating all these vehicles to match up to the researched attributes of Americans. The Chrysler designer leaned over and whispered: 'Geez, at Chrysler, we would just come up with a neat idea and tweak it.'

Chrysler had a lot of PEOPLE who loved cars and understood PEOPLE.

Now, enter Lutz at General Motors.

When Lutz retired from Chrysler Corp. three years ago, I had a lengthy dinner conversation with him in Ann Arbor. He gave a clue as to how he might change things at GM now: 'I think some companies have the philosophy of: Let's go research everything and then try to develop a product out of this mass of research data. We go the other way. We sort of say, hey, we've got this great idea for an all-new product category ... or an all-new styling philosophy, as we did with the Ram pickup. And let's do it, and then research it and see who likes it and who hates it, why they like it, why they hate it, and we may have to make some modifications.'

Remember, the new head of product development at GM is not now and never has been an engineer. He's a businessman who loves cars, trucks, motorcycles and planes.

And here's a prediction: Bob Lutz will make some mistakes. He will make Rick Wagoner roll his eyes a few times. But he'll be worth billions to General Motors.

This company can execute. Under Tom Davis, the product-development team quickly and efficiently made a great lineup of trucks. The new TrailBlazer and GM's other new mid-sized sport-utilities are simply sensational, with a stunningly quiet, smooth, powerful straight-six engine that makes everything else seem crude.

But it's also a company that so misinterpreted its own research that it built the Aztek. And long after realizing that American consumers wouldn't buy a Lumina anymore, it still cranked out the nondescript sedan exclusively for rental fleets because the financial numbers worked out. Never mind that the plodding design and cheesy interior embarrassed its poor renters and humiliated GM.

Those things won't happen under Vice Chairman Robert Lutz.

GM's car guys are nervous but excited. The whole company is poised to perform.

If Lutz still has the touch, and if Rick Wagoner will tolerate some mistakes and the occasional insult to one corner or another of his company, GM finally may have completed the revolution begun by Jack Smith after the boardroom coup of 1992.

You can email Peter Brown at pbrown@crain.com

You can reach Peter Brown at pbrown@crain.com

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