An ungainly Buick led Robert Lutz to reform GM's vehicle design process.
Lutz decided to huddle with Buick's designers and engineers at GM's technical center in Warren, Mich. GM's freshly appointed product czar was worried about the next-generation Buick Regal.
Participants in a customer clinic had complained about the Regal's bulbous exterior and massive rear. The car looked like a potato, yet the Regal's launch was slated for 2002.
Then Lutz changed course. At the meeting, he gave designers 75 days to fix the car. "I remember thinking, 'Thank God,' " says Dennis Burke, the Regal's chief designer. "We really get to make this vehicle better."
Last summer the car debuted as the Buick LaCrosse. But the impact of Lutz's decision goes beyond the LaCrosse makeover.
The changes triggered that day led GM to reform its product development -- changes that influenced the two Saturn cars introduced yesterday at the Detroit auto show.
Lutz's intervention in the LaCrosse design was part of a broader redo of GM's dysfunctional product development process. Under GM's new procedures:
"It was cultural," says GM design chief Ed Welburn. "Now people feel more free. In some ways, they are obligated to really speak their mind and say, 'You know, the car is not right.' We don't just push vehicles through."
The LaCrosse was intended to be Buick's mid-sized alternative for the Toyota Camry crowd. But the first version of the redesigned Regal -- dubbed GMX 265 -- proved to be overweight. Built off the so-called W platform, the new Regal was badly proportioned.
"The vehicle just did not work," Welburn says. "It had a massive overhang, a heavy front end and a tire-to-body relationship that was not where it should be."
Despite their misgivings, GM's designers and marketers scheduled a customer clinic in Tampa, Fla. In the summer of 2000, a group of middle-aged consumers viewed the concept. They hated it.
"The front grille is too big," one person said. Said another: "The doors are heavy and bulky."
Participants were supposed to rate the Regal's exterior design on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being "very appealing." They gave it an average score of 3.0, well below the rating of the existing Camry and Ford Taurus.
Although the clinic participants didn't like the Regal's exterior, it got decent scores on other factors.
After digesting the clinic results, the designers presented the vehicle to a group of senior executives, including Ron Zarrella, then president of GM North America. The Regal got their blessing. "The company was behind the design," Welburn says.
Although some GM executives still wanted to stop the program, the company made production plans. Approval for production tools was only "a hair away," designer Burke says.
How did the project survive when the vehicle was demonstrably unattractive? Burke says it was a symptom of the old GM, a culture where vehicle line executives and designers did not always see eye-to-eye.
Vehicle line executives oversee the development of a specific architecture -- the mechanical underpinnings for a family of vehicles. For example, the LaCrosse shares its architecture with the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Impala as well as the Pontiac Grand Prix. It is up to the vehicle line executive to make sure a particular nameplate is designed and produced on time.
Jim Westby was the vehicle line executive responsible for the LaCrosse. He has since retired.
Burke's task was admittedly challenging. Under Zarrella, brand management was given top priority. Each new GM vehicle was supposed to echo an iconic shape.
In the case of the Regal, that shape was a curvaceous concept known as a "speed form." Burke used the speed form as a template for the LaCrosse concept, which generated some public enthusiasm when it debuted at the Detroit auto show in 2000.
The concept had a swooping C-pillar, muscular rear quarter panels and a bold grille, but it was never meant to be built.
Meanwhile, GM designers were trying to incorporate the speed form's design cues into the next-generation Regal on the W platform. "The combination really didn't work," Welburn says.
Stopped in its tracks
On Dec. 14, 2001, Lutz stopped the GMX 265 and brought engineers and designers together. To make the vehicle look less clumsy, Lutz asked both groups to lower the roof and increase the slope of the windows. He wanted the roof rails thinned and mass taken out of the rear.
Burke was given 75 days to get it done. "It was pretty much a melt and repour," he says.
By the time Burke was finished, not one surface on the second Regal had any relationship to the first. When the new Regal was brought to another customer clinic, participants gave it a score of 3.7.
It edged out the Camry for the top score, and one-fourth of the clinic participants gave the vehicle a perfect 5 out of 5.
To redesign the Regal so quickly, GM had to resolve other disputes between engineers and designers. Welburn and Jim Queen, GM's vice president of engineering, began holding early morning meetings dubbed "the 6:15 enabler."
Then top executives got personally involved. On Friday mornings, the "Friday executive walkaround" brought senior executives to the technical center to see prototypes. Company CEO Rick Wagoner and North America President Gary Cowger participated along with Lutz, Queen and then design chief Wayne Cherry.
Clay Dean, a design director for GM small and mid-sized cars, says that thanks to the walkarounds, "They are up to speed and have a better idea of what's coming and can give their input."
GM also changed its approach to car clinics. Researchers began showing three or four prototypes at a time to consumers, instead of one. The clinics began to deliver those results in time for the Friday meetings.
Most importantly, Lutz knocked down the wall between engineering and design. In the old GM, vehicle line engineers worked independently of designers.
The groups did not always collaborate. Burke says engineers called the shots and laid down the parameters for the vehicle.
"Pre-Bob, engineering would come into the studio, lay out the criteria and say, 'This is it,' " Burke says. "It was non-negotiable. Engineering was a little more in the saddle. They would pull up the truck and say, "Here are the criteria."
In turn, designers were asked to produce concepts that could be converted easily into a production vehicle. Welburn says GM designers sometimes produced fantasy concepts that were unrealistic from an engineering perspective. That was the problem with the original LaCrosse concept.
"We went through years of developing themes without engineering" involvement, Welburn says. "Designs would be done with a lot of flair but wouldn't work with the architecture."
Saturn benefited from the change. In summer 2003, GM began designing the Saturn Sky roadster and a mid-sized Saturn sedan.
Design studios in Los Angeles and Warren, Mich., collaborated with GM studios in the United Kingdom, Sweden and Germany. Opel's design studio in Ruesselsheim, Germany, had a major role in designing the new Euro-look Saturns.
Dean says: "We looked within the entire GM portfolio."
Saturn also benefited from a new method of research. When Saturn tested its mid-sized sedan concept in customer clinics, GM presented multiple versions. An initial version did not test well, but a subsequent design received the highest scores ever recorded in a GM test session.
In short, the process changed. A vehicle will not go forward if its exterior does not look good. A vehicle cannot proceed through corporate inertia anymore.
Could a GMX 265 happen again?
"There are too many folks involved to allow something that is wrong," Dean says. "Communication up and down is much better. We are addressing problems far earlier in development than we have before."
You may e-mail Jason Stein at [email protected]