Originally, the plant was supposed to go offline in 2010, but recently the closing date was moved up to early '09. Wall Street woes and stock price freefalls surely forced GM's hand.
SUV sales are not going to stop altogether, as there will always be a need for vehicles that excel at towing, toting, hauling, and conquering the wilds. But the popularity of the SUV is definitely in decline, and as such, only the best and the brightest will survive (31-mpg Audi Q7, anyone?). Gas prices are up, jobs are disappearing, 401(k)s are in jeopardy, hybrids are in vogue, and dismal sales plus GM's financial crisis has forced it to take the mediocre, slow-selling GMT360 out behind the barn for a quick mercy-killing. And not a moment too soon.
The GMT360 SUVs were supposed to be a revolutionary new mid-size SUV from GM back around the turn of the millennium. Ford had been handily beating GM's mid-size SUVs with Explorer sales, and GM needed to up the ante. What resulted was one of those design-by-committee pieces of mediocrity: lots of smart engineering watered down hopelessly by the bean counters, all resulting in a vehicle not a whole lot more successful than the ancient S-10 Blazer/ S-15 Jimmy it replaced.
Oldsmobile BravadaEnlarge Photo
The GMT360's 4.2-liter six, GM's first in-line six in decades, is butter smooth, employs variable-valve timing (on the exhaust camshaft, anyway), and boasts nearly 300 horsepower. In four-wheel-drive guise, it even locates the front axle half shafts right through the tall engine's oil pan for space efficiency. That's smart engineering and a cool detail one wouldn't expect in a GM truck. But the fact that this engine doesn't have the low-end guts of the rough, hoary old 4.3-liter V-6 it replaced is shocking. It asks the meat-and-potatoes truck/SUV crowd to scream around all day at 5,000 rpm--that's where the 4.2-liter in-line six makes its mojo (in its current version, the engine's 277 pound-feet occur at 4,800 rpm, its 291 hp at 6,000 rpm).
GM also had one of its infamous badge-engineering field days with the GMT360. At its height, there were six of these beasts, including the Buick Rainier, the Oldsmobile Bravada (oops, bye-bye Olds), and even a funky center-mounted ignition key couldn't fool people into thinking that this was a Saab. There were awkward extended-wheelbase versions, aka Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL, and a nearly useless Envoy XUV that was killed off nearly as soon as it was put on sale. Oh, yeah, and poor Isuzu got a little piece of the pie in the form of the Ascender.
Would Saturn be better off if GM had realized the market was changing? Maybe. Would something like the Chevy Volt already be here today if the big mid-sizes utes had been axed earlier? Possibly, but not likely. SUV sales didn't start cratering until 2005, when the GMT360s were already halfway through their shelf lives. Has GM learned the lesson of badge engineering and connecting with the market at exactly the right time? No (Acadia, Outlook, Traverse, and Enclave) and maybe.--Colin Mathews