General Motors spent billions in recent years developing terrific new vehicles and impressive new fuel-saving technology. Now much of this effort will be wasted -- before it even had a chance in the market -- with the closing of Saturn and Pontiac.
General Motors' new CEO Fritz Henderson and his lieutenant, global product development chief Tom Stephens, still have a chance to salvage something from this mess by making a few tweaks to GM's viability plan.
For instance, the highly acclaimed Pontiac G8 sports sedan from Australia -- which Pontiac spokesman Jim Hopson says was the top-selling retail vehicle in Pontiac's lineup last month -- could easily become the next Buick Regal Grand National. Some Buick fans consider the Grand National of the mid-1980s to be Buick's last great car. A rebadged and slightly face-lifted G8 could be Buick's next great one.
Even though the 1980s Grand National was a two-door, and the G8 is a four-door, no one will mind. The G8 can do everything better than the original Grand National, and it could be a halo car for a gravely injured brand.
And wouldn't the soon-to-die Saturn Aura sedan make an excellent entry level Buick? With sales of just 137,197 vehicles in the United States last year, Buick needs major help.
If GM wants higher volume from the G8 platform, another iteration could become the next Chevrolet Impala SS. The last rear-wheel-drive Impala SS made in the mid-1990s was a classic muscle sedan that is much missed by Chevy fans. The current front-wheel-drive Impala SS has failed to sell in decent numbers.
And then there are the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky roadsters.
With a redesign of the ill-fitting top, a higher-quality interior and Chevrolet styling, this car could be a terrific new Chevrolet Monza.
Having such a car would allow Chevrolet to take the Corvette further upmarket while still offering an affordable high-performance sports car for the masses. The turbocharged version of the Solstice delivers 0-to-60-mph performance reminiscent of Corvettes made just a few years ago.
On April 3, Pontiac began shipping a coupe version of the Solstice with a removable targa top. GM spent tens of millions of dollars designing this car. Hopson said about 1,000 units are scheduled to be built before the Pontiac brand skids into the history books. This car also should live as a Chevrolet.
The Obama administration has called for more hybrid and green vehicles. But GM has shelved some eagerly awaited high-tech powertrains that could have provided big advantages. If GM is ever going to get back up on its wheels, it will need to impress skeptical buyers with new cutting-edge technology.
For starters, GM has a terrific new 4.5-liter diesel V-8 for light-duty trucks that rewrites the book on engine design by simplifying the intake and exhaust system. With this engine, GM could have shaved $600 off production costs compared with a standard diesel and had a motor that delivered a fuel economy gain of around 25 percent.
The new small Duramax 4.5 is completely designed and ready to go. But GM halted installation of the production machinery at its Tonawanda, N.Y., plant in March as well as integration work.
Ford and Chrysler have delayed plans to install small diesels in their pickups. GM could own this market with an innovative engine that runs as smoothly and as quietly as a gasoline engine.
Henderson said this week that Saturn production will end this year, wiping out a quarter of GM's sales of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles. Among the casualties are the Two Mode hybrid version of the Vue SUV that would have delivered fuel economy in the mid-30 mpg range and the plug-in version of that same vehicle.
The plug-in Vue would have given GM a vehicle that would have beaten the plug-in version of the Toyota Prius to market.
GM has no immediate plans to redeploy Saturn's hybrid technology, according to a source familiar with GM's future product plans.
Henderson or Stephens should have ordered that the Saturn Vue's advanced hybrid powertrain be installed in the Chevrolet Equinox or GMC Terrain, two similar-sized SUVs that use some of the same parts.
I understand Henderson and Stephens have to make tough decisions to please the government handlers writing the checks keeping GM alive. And both have to make sure GM lives to fight another day.
But that won't happen if the company doesn't have standout vehicles with state-of-the-art technology that savvy consumers want to buy. So far, the product decisions made under Henderson and Stephens make that task even more daunting.
So here's my advice to both men: Take another tranche of government funding and devote it exclusively to making sure that the best vehicles and technology from the doomed divisions live on.
It's a wise use of taxpayer money.