The Saturn ION era at General Motors was not as gloomy as it looks in the rearview mirror. The world’s biggest automaker at the time, GM began the New Millennium by sacking Ron Zarrella and promoting its newly rehired car guy, Bob Lutz, to be Rick Wagoner’s right-hand man on product. One of Lutz’s first public assignments was to introduce the Saturn Ion at the New York International Auto Show, even though he had nothing to do with the car’s development.
Lutz would go on to have a few near misses of his own, notably the Aussie Pontiac GTO, the Pontiac Solstice, and indeed the whole single-generation Kappa rear-wheel-drive platform. He also took the lead on the Chevrolet Volt and the Corvette ZR-1. GM’s attitude toward its own product became sufficiently upbeat that some executives figured they had a credible Honda Civic competitor in the 2005 Chevy Cobalt.
True, the new car was far better than the Chevy Cavalier it replaced, and a later front-wheel-drive Cobalt SS coupe actually handled better than the Solstice, but in the end, to call the Cobalt “mediocre” in a review was to be kind.
Meanwhile, Wagoner seemed to be reorganizing the company every few years, including the period during which the Cobalt/Ion’s ignition-key problem was uncovered, but the CEO lacked vision. By 2006, his latest reorganization included a long-term plan to stop GM from taking such large quarterly losses that it was going broke, but he didn’t account for the kinds of gasoline prices we were paying in 2007 and 2008 or for the possibility that the whole economy could crash.
By then, the seeds had been planted for an eventual recall fiasco that would rival the Ford Explorer/Firestone recall of 2000 and Toyota’s more recent “unintended acceleration” debacle, even as American consumers began to get used to product recalls.
There have been reports that auto journalists who drove the new Cobalt in 2004 complained about the ignition key problem. It never happened to me, but I tend to take my keychain off a test car’s keychain when I drive. That’s probably what many owners do, too, when bringing in their Cobalts, Ions, and Chevy HHRs with complaints that they had been shutting down unexpectedly.
Combine the “could not duplicate” problem with 31 confirmed accidents and 13 fatalities, and the 51 investigators that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had at the time, and you have a recipe for a poorly managed disaster.
At what point does poor management become willful negligence? The Center for Automotive Safety, the organization founded by Ralph Nader and funded by product liability lawyers, is trying to convince Congress and the public that the ignition lock cylinders always were a matter of willful negligence. Meanwhile GM CEO Mary Barra is testifying before both the House and Senate to show the public that it’s doing everything it can to fix the problem.
I have no doubt GM is doing all it can, though it doesn’t have the goodwill that Toyota has been able to count on after its $1.2 billion U.S. Justice Department settlement over runaway cars. Toyota was fined for “unlawful activities…” to wit, covering up evidence of sticky throttle pedals and “floor mat entrapment” in connection with crashes involving its Toyota and Lexus (but not Scion) products. You’ll notice that the allegation of some sci-fi level of evil, uncontrollable electronics that wouldn’t let drivers override the throttles with their brakes wasn’t mentioned in the settlement.
Ford and Toyota have survived their seemingly disastrous recall mistakes. Toyota certainly would take the hefty fine over any negative effect on sales going forward, and that will be GM’s biggest challenge as the recall story continues to unfold. First, Barra must convince Congress that its current small cars, and its current management team, have nothing to do with the small cars and the upper management team of 2006. Then it must convince the American consumer of the same thing.