"But vehicle after vehicle now proves him correct in the marketplace, like the (Chevrolet) Malibu and the (Cadillac) CTS, where we added more in the interior where it was important to the consumer."
Soon after taking over, Lutz killed several projects under development, including a seven-seat Saturn Vue he called "grotesque." He sent others back to the drawing board, including what he calls an "awful" flat-roofed, slab-sided Cadillac STS nearing completion.
The blunders-in-the-making were the result of trying to develop cars primarily to meet internal targets, such as cost, timing, parts reuse or weight, he says.
"By and large, our car development was being guided by marketing people who weren't car people," he says. "Many of the (project leaders) were not car people either. They were engineers who administered a program."
At the same time, he moved quickly to get some cars out the door that might create a buzz. In 2004, GM launched both a revival of the Pontiac GTO muscle car and the snappy little Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky roadster to highly favorable reviews, although the Solstice didn't go on sale until 2005 and the Sky until 2006.
"You can name any number of lousy vehicles that were the result of our previous internal focus," Lutz says. "It wasn't until we developed an external focus and started saying to ourselves, 'What is it that people want?' that we started building marketable cars."
Lutz's emphasis on quality and content has been paying off with a steady stream of warm reviews and strong response for GM's newest cars, notably the Chevy Malibu and Cadillac CTS. Although GM domestic brand sales were down 17.5 percent for the first seven months of this year, the Malibu was up 37.0 percent and the CTS 34.1 percent for the period. "The products are beginning to resonate more ... but it's been a tough battle and will continue to be," Queen says. "Bob almost single-handedly carried that torch forward."
With the basic product-development process smoothed out and working again, Lutz and his crews face an even more daunting challenge: turning development and production resources away from trucks and coming up in a hurry with must-have smaller cars and crossovers in a shaky, cash-starved environment.
The job will be huge; in 2007, trucks accounted for 58 percent of GM's domestic-brand U.S. sales. But GM says it will introduce 19 new vehicles, 18 of which are either cars or crossovers, during the next two years.
They range from a minicar to small cars for each of the brands to a new CTS wagon to the new de facto range-topper, the high-profile Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle due in 2010.
But GM is burning through cash at the rate of $1 billion a month even as the market is heading for its worst downturn in a decade. Can Lutz and his product teams get to the other side before the cash runs out?
"Well, he's an amazing guy," Lovejoy says. "I don't know how they're going to keep him going, but they absolutely need him to continue to do what he's been doing."