Noise, Vibration, and Harshness: The Big Three American Auto Companies

Tim Marrs

Unlike rough patches in the past, Detroit isn't making any money now - and that's after it's closed plants, squeezed suppliers, slashed waste, jammed the union, and laid off workers. Excepting executive salaries, more generously supersized than ever, what's left to cut? (Alongside a bold $38.7 billion loss in 2007, General Motors turned over a new leaf by approving a 64 percent increase in chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner's annual compensation, to $15.7 million, among other raises it handed out to top execs. Imagine if the company actually turned a profit.)

It is chilling to remember that GM spent a fair part of the last century fighting to keep its market share below 50 percent for fear of triggering antitrust intervention. And it seems like only yesterday that GM executives wore "29" buttons on their expensive lapels. That represented the percentage of market share GM was going, as their bold exhortative prophecy indicated, to reclaim. Whoops. GM's market share has just sunk below 20 percent, its lowest showing since the 1920s. Will we see "19" buttons this year? Or should we go straight to "16"? Recently, the company announced plans to close four factories, lopping a substantial 35 percent off its light-truck production capacity - about 700,000 units - in one fell swoop.

Just as grave, GM says it's thinking of selling the Hummer division, on which it has surely lost billions and its dealers millions. Or perhaps the company will just shutter it. GM has a point. Who would be foolish enough to buy Hummer? Besides GM, that is. It probably shouldn't bother. Unless what's in the cards is a radical recasting of Hummer as a maker of low-volume, high-tech, alt-energy off-roaders. But GM is too broke to make Hummer relevant, much the way it's too broke to aggressively market the desirable cars it does sell. May's disappointing total of 1091 Saturn Astras sold is a picture worth 1091 words.

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