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Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  ). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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RANTS #463

September 17, 2008

“GMnext” -  and an ominous note of reality.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

Detroit. The first 100 years went by in a blur; at least it did at GM’s centennial celebration yesterday morning at its headquarters in the Renaissance Center, hard by the Detroit River. GM intentionally raced through its first 100 years in the opening minute of the hour-long program, as the whole point of its forward looking “GMnext” initiative is to talk about where the company is going, not where it has been.

The company then capped a rousing, around-the-world “live” tour of its far-reaching global operations with the unveiling of the production-ready Chevrolet Volt - the company’s all-new electric car - with GM CEO Rick Wagoner making the point that "The Volt symbolizes General Motors' commitment to the future."

Ah yes, the Volt. No, it’s not just the “reinvention of the car” as GM likes to say – although it very well could be – it’s the company’s lead image spear for the next two years, the one vehicle that has the potential to not only change the game itself, but one that just might have the ability to change two decades of accrued negative perceptions that have pulverized GM’s image.

Let me repeat one key word here, the Volt has the potential to do a lot of great things for GM and the auto business as a whole. But will it? And better yet, can it?

GM is convinced. As a matter of fact they’re so bullish about the Volt that they’ve bet the very existence of the company on its success, and they’ve hung their collective asses so far out in the breeze on this one that anything less than absolute vindication on all of its promised performance targets would be such a massive black eye for the company that GM would never recover.

But now what? One reality of “GMnext” is that it will require the biggest balancing act in modern automotive history, because GM now has the monumental task of convincing the American consumer public that the Volt will:

1. Establish GM as the industry’s technological-ecological leader.

2. Usher in the dawn of the “electrification” of the automobile.

GM hopes to do all of this while maintaining the public’s interest in a vehicle that won’t be in showrooms until the end of 2010.

And while GM is doing that, it still must continue to sell its improved portfolio of cars, trucks and crossovers, the ones that are still straining to gain grudging respect in this market.

Combine this challenge with the precarious nature of the nation’s financial future - what with the implosion of Wall Street roiling the economy - and you have a quest that’s unprecedented in the annals of automotive history.

As I’ve stated in previous columns of late, the idea of Detroit convincing the American consumer buying public that their cars and trucks are worthy has become a fool’s errand, because America and Americans frankly couldn’t care less. The domestic auto industry is wrestling with the reality that it simply cannot change a generation of buyers’ overwhelmingly negative perceptions about its products, even though most of that negativity isn’t applicable to the vehicles being produced today.

The Volt, however, has the potential to change all that.

The Volt has captured the imagination of a large portion of the media and a large squadron of savvy consumers looking for The Next Big Green Thing. And GM has, in turn, managed to capture marketing lightning in a bottle with it. (See more on the Volt in "On The Surface" - ed.)

But how long can it last? And how long can GM keep the public and the media’s fascination with the car “on point” in the coming 26 months?

Though not an apples-to-apples comparison, how GM has handled the upcoming Camaro is a case, in my estimation, of how not to do it. The Camaro won’t be available in showrooms until next March, yet after its slam-bang intro at the Detroit auto show in January of 2006, it has starred in the movie Transformers and has become so ubiquitous at car shows across the country that the newness is all but worn off.

Is this the fate of the Volt? The fact that it’s slated to appear in the second chapter of Transformers (along with a bunch of other GM production vehicles and concepts) being filmed right now for next summer does not exactly bode well. Let that be a caution to GM marketers going forward.

There’s no question that if the Volt delivers on its promise of 40 reliable, trouble-free miles on a single electric charge - even if it does cost $40,000 and GM won’t build a lot of them - it will change how the game is played, and GM will establish itself as the unquestioned environmentally forward-thinking automobile company.

But at the end of the day there’s another, more ominous reality hanging over GM and the euphoric potential of the Volt.

And that is that after a century of dominance and a storied existence as one of America ’s corporate icons, “GMnext” isn’t about the next 100 years at all.

Rather, “GMnext” is about whether or not GM can survive its precarious financial standing – the one that is haunting every move the company makes – long enough to see the Volt come to fruition in the first place.

Such is life in the Motor City these days.

Thanks for listening, see you next Wednesday.

(Photos courtesy of GM)

(Photo by Tom Pidgeon for General Motors)

General Motors Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, Vice Chairman Bob Lutz and President and COO Fritz Henderson unveil the production version of the Chevrolet Volt yesterday in Detroit.