Is GM losing its stodgy image? It's too early to tell, but there were some encouraging signs at the Detroit auto show.
Several GM concept vehicles, including the Chevrolet SSR roadster truck, GMC Terradyne pickup and Precept hybrid electrical car, were well received by the auto press.
And GM is getting good marks for the rapid development of three innovative production vehicles, the Chevrolet Avalanche, Pontiac Aztek and Hummer H2, shown here last week.
Larry Burns deserves substantial credit for GM's progress. Burns, 48, is GM's global product portfolio boss and head of research and development. He and GM chief designer Wayne Cherry are charged with jazzing up GM's vehicle lineup in the United States.
'His critical combined role of research and development and product planning make him the linchpin between our leading-edge activities and today's offerings,' said Chairman Jack Smith.
Burns, a GM vice president, is an enthusiastic cheerleader for GM's progress, but he admits the company needs to take further steps to improve vehicle development and get products to market faster.
'No, we're not as fast as we need to be. It clearly is a very high priority,' Burns told Automotive News.
The need for more exciting product and quicker market response time is urgent: In 1999, GM's share of the U.S. market took a historic drop below 30 percent.
Although he oversees the company's vehicle lineup, Burns can't be called a 'car guy.'
Burns prefers the term 'industry guy.' He is a research scientist with a doctorate in engineering and a knack for solving complicated production problems using mathematics. He is a personable man who doesn't shy away from talking about the cochlear implant that restored the hearing he lost five years ago.
Burns also is an avid runner, hiker and skier. For personal use, he favors sport-utilities - particularly the upcoming Avalanche, a cross between a sport-utility and a pickup. On the job, however, he favors any vehicle that meets GM's definition of innovative: a vehicle that either creates a new segment, redefines an existing segment, or at least builds upon an existing GM strength.
'When we were in our financial crisis in the early 1990s, it was hard to keep innovation high on our priority list,' Burns said.
Burns, who also heads GM's r&d, said GM today keeps 300 fresh product ideas on hand. That large portfolio of ideas helped GM make quick decisions on the Avalanche and Aztek and provided the nine concept vehicles GM is showing at auto shows this year.
'There's not one silver bullet out there,' Burns said. 'It's a big market, with a lot of segments and a lot of dynamics behind those segments, so we need a lot of ideas.
GM, for example, is looking at the shrinking sports car segment. Customers still want sporty vehicles, Burns said, but they don't like the trade-offs that come with traditional sports cars, such as the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. Those trade-offs include tight seating and limited cargo space.
Said Burns: 'My instinct and research tells me there's a big opportunity out there in redefining sport.' One example on the Detroit floor: the Chevy SSR.