In July Semico published a blog, “GM should kill the Corvette. That blog generated a heavy reader response, much of it defending the Corvette and its pushrod technology. Having read the responses, I still think the Corvette uses highly-developed but archaic technology; but I also believe that the reasons why GM should kill the Corvette have to do with marketing, not technology.
One of the things contributing to GM’s troubles is that its divisions, which had been separate car companies, lost their brand identity. The GM car you owned, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick or Cadillac, once made a statement about you that everyone from eight to eighty, male or female, understood. You wore that identity like a suit of clothes. That brand identity was destroyed.
Chevrolet’s mainstream cars became nearly as big and heavy as Cadillacs: same size engines, same feature sets. Smaller Chevrolets were badge engineered to sell as Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Buicks or Cadillacs, cheapening those brands. Executives decided that it would be more economical to make one V-8 for several different divisions. A Pontiac might actually have a Chevrolet engine; but, in the minds of the decision makers, the Chevrolet engine was just as good as a Pontiac engine would have been. Who would care?
I once told a GM manager, when the Cadillac Cimarron was introduced, that the Cimarron was a terrible car that did not come close to a BMW in any measure. His response, “Our customers don’t know that. They’ll buy it because it’s a Cadillac.” That kind of thinking ruins brands.
GM is now down to three passenger car makes. To survive, it needs to re-establish a brand identity for each make. Chevrolet: family sedans for working class customers. Buick: prestige cars for middle class customers. Cadillac: world-class cars for wealthy people. Sadly, the Corvette, as it is today, does not fit that scheme. A sports car that would help sell family sedans should be a car that a young person could afford to buy as a first car. It should be stylish, offer enough performance to be fun to drive, and be dead nuts reliable. When the owner decided to buy a family car, he or she might think. “Oh yes, that sports car I had was great. I think I’ll look at a Chevrolet.” That would draw the right kind of traffic into Chevrolet showrooms.
Ironically, Honda has announced that it will put a new sports car on the market in February 2010, the Honda CR-Z hybrid. This car will feature Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist system, combining an electric motor and the 1.3 liter SOHC aluminum powerplant also found in the Honda Insight. The pictures look great. It’s a stylish, affordable sports car with an engine from a family sedan. That’s exactly the kind of sports car I’m talking about.
In the meantime, reader response to the original blog was that GM should go on building the Corvette; a car that I believe is a high-performance sports car for a niche market, a car that can be driven safely to its full potential only on a race track, a car with highly developed technology that hasn’t advanced for many years. In spite of that, I actually agree. There is a place for the Corvette. but I’m out of space and time. In a later blog, I’ll discuss that place.