PETER BROWN

When Lutz dumps on global warming ...

Peter Brown is associate publisher and editorial director of Automotive News.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:

To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

— T.S. Eliot

Murder in the Cathedral

Bob Lutz's team is turning out one terrific vehicle after another, and General Motors is also earning some credibility in fuel economy.

Lutz's team is developing a plug-in hybrid that will play a central role in GM's brand values. GM wants to be known as part of the solution, not the problem.

And then Bob Lutz tells a bunch of reporters, supposedly off the record, that human-caused global warming is "a total crock of shit."

Imagine the cringing over in Steve Harris' public relations department.

Lutz's defense? Hey, I'm allowed to have my own well-researched views. And the fact that global warming is a hoax doesn't change GM's commitment to being a leader on fuel economy.

No, but it does change consumers' attitudes toward GM. And those attitudes are as important as the hardware GM turns out.

Even while Toyota cranks out big, V-8-powered trucks, it relentlessly positions itself as the fuel economy company, on the side of the angels.

But if GM is investing in fuel-saving technology only because the darned government, snookered by that damned Al Gore, is raising standards and the darned marketplace wants fuel economy, that's just business.

Well, all other things being equal, consumers prefer the side of the angels.

Let's explore two issues here: Lutz's stunning leadership of GM's product development organization — along with the related issue of what happens after Lutz — and his attitude toward environmental challenges.

The Lutz effect

When Rick Wagoner hired Lutz in 2001 to turbocharge GM's plodding product development organization, I wrote this: "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."

I hereby amend that to say "lots of billions" in revenue. GM's cross-overs, trucks and cars are coming out of the product development factory just the way consumers want them: refined, quiet, elegant and offering an assured feeling of control.

Recently a car rental company assigned me a Pontiac G6, a model that is about three years old. Compare it with its newer platform mates, the Saturn Aura and the new Chevrolet Malibu. Where the G6 is noisy, underpowered and indifferent to drive, the Malibu is quiet, refined and a pleasure.

That's Lutz. His team of acolytes took the same platform and improved everything that a customer notices. The interior makes you feel successful. The quiet makes you feel elegant and prosperous. GM spent some extra money on the Malibu but will earn it back in both higher prices and volume.

That's Lutz.

I've been asking around GM: Will Lutzism outlive Lutz?

GM still needs Lutz himself to ensure that those last few dollars will be invested in beautiful interiors and assured performance. His team can develop a great car, but his oversized persona is still needed to keep the finance guys' hands off the final product.

And there is no obvious heir. So the future is not assured although, at 76, Lutz still charges harder than people half his age.

Doo-doo boo-boo

Now for global warming.

For more than a decade, I've heard Lutz wittily belittle people who share the scientific consensus that human-emitted greenhouse gases — including carbon dioxide from the burning of petroleum in Lutz's beloved cars and aircraft — are a cause of global warming. His basic position is this: There's lots of natural greenhouse gas in the atmosphere (he regularly cites cow farts), and whatever extra gas we people spew is not even a rounding error.

As he says, he's entitled to his own opinion.

But when the vice chairman of GM, an icon and the czar of vehicle development, calls the scientists' consensus on global warming a bunch of doo-doo, he's unavoidably speaking for the company.

Does the consumer want to buy a car from a company that professes to want to save the world (think Toyota and Honda) or from a company that begrudgingly plans to meet misguided federal standards?

Mum's the word

Yes, the vehicles matter. But so do ideas and brands. Witness the excellent Saturn Aura, which sells poorly. People who want that car don't want a Saturn, and people who want a Saturn don't want that car. Brand matters.

Which leads to this question: Will people who want fuel-saving technology want to buy a GM vehicle?

Lutz has led an astonishing transformation of GM's product development. If GM is going to lead in plug-in hybrids and the electrification of the car, Lutz is the best field general to lead the troops.

And if GM is going to succeed in the marketplace, sometimes the field general needs to keep quiet on the wisdom of the war.

You can reach Peter Brown at pbrown@crain.com

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