DETROIT -- Amid a barrage of investigations and bad press, General Motors' battle to reassure customers over its handling of the ignition-switch recall soon will expand to a new front: its dealerships.
Early next month, the first of hundreds of thousands of Chevrolet Cobalt, Saturn Ion and other vehicle owners will begin streaming into GM dealerships for repairs. Dealers will be tasked with a relatively simple 30-minute fix to replace the switches -- and the much tougher job of convincing customers that today's GM is better than the one that let the deadly defect linger for more than a decade.
Since announcing its recall last month of 1.37 million U.S. cars, GM has sought to draw a distinction between the pre-bankruptcy company and a more customer-focused GM of today. That assertion will be tested in showrooms and service bays, where recall customers will be offered loaner cars, towing service and a $500 discount on new cars in addition to the free fix.
"The message of New GM is one of accountability and taking care of these customers. We'll carry that forward," says Sam Pilato, general manager at Dimmitt Chevrolet in Clearwater, Fla. "This is our opportunity to give them a good experience, show them that this is a different place, a pleasant place."
A directive sent to dealers early this month underscored the extent to which GM is relying on retailers for damage control. GM suggested carefully scripted answers to recall-related questions that dealers likely will field in coming months from affected owners as well as other customers who have seen the crush of media coverage and are wondering what went wrong.
Question: "Why did it take so long between the first report of a field incident and recalling these vehicles?" GM's dealer Q&A reads.
Answer: "We deeply regret the events that led to the recall. ...We will continue to cooperate with [regulators] on any inquiry they have with respect to timeliness."
GM also emphasized that it doesn't want dealers exploiting the recall or the $500 voucher as a sales opportunity.
GM said it will begin around April 7 to make repairs to the recalled vehicles, which include 2005-07 Chevy Cobalts, 2007 Pontiac G5s, 2003-07 Saturn Ions; 2006-07 Chevy HHRs; 2006-07 Pontiac Solstices and 2007 Saturn Skys.