GM Getting It Right?

May 31, 2005
Welcome back to work. Like millions of other Americans, you might have made the long drive home from the cabin or in-laws yesterday, followed by the mornings long commute. (It always seems worse the day after a holiday, doesn't it?) A recent federal study suggested what we all really deduced: commuting times continue to get longer and longer. I've had to learn all sorts of alternatives around the nearby I-696/I-75 intersection.

There are, however, times I don't really mind rush hour. A good show on NPR, a great jazz tune on satellite radio, why I can almost achieve a mini-Zen moment. The smartest automakers are quickly learning to get it right where it matters, in the interior. Great audio systems, good ergonomics and the sort of look and feel that the best Scandinavian furniture maker would envy. I'm convinced that half of all Audi buyers fall in love with the interior, and it's what continue to differentiate VWs from more mundane competitors.

The Big Three are just beginning to figure this out. The Chrysler 300C is a good example. And even the latest Ford F-Series pickups are moving in the right direction, with an array of custom interiors for each different model. I wish I could be more upbeat about GM, but several potentially promising new models have fallen notably short of expectations. The otherwise delightful '05 Cadillac STS has all too much plastic in the center stack. And the instrument panel of the 2005 Pontiac G6 is loaded with what I call K-Mart plastic, cheap and not especially cheerful.

That may be soon to change. Insiders report that GM is investing an average $200 a vehicle to upgrade its interiors, starting with the 2006 model-year. You'll not see it at all on some vehicles, or you may dimly notice the most subtle changes, such as an improved look and feel to knobs and switches. But all-new models should be significantly improved, especially on high-line offerings, where GM is reportedly willing to spend $1000 or more to get it right. Keep your eye out for the mid-cycle update to the otherwise breakthrough Caddy CTS.

Considering GM's bleak financial realities, why add even more cost to its cars? The thinking is simple, though we'll have to wait to see how sound. Make your cars more attractive and more people will buy them -- and they'll be willing to pay more, to boot. That would mean not only higher prices, but lower incentives -- as well as improved residuals (resale values, in consumer-speak). We'll remain skeptical for the moment, but as we contemplate sitting in traffic, it's an attractive idea.

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