Badge Engineering is Bad Business

Posted: March 23, 2011 in Rants
Tags: , ,

Today I read the statistic that Detroit lost 25% of its entire population in the last decade.  That number is insane.  It is now down to roughly 719,000 people, from its peak of 2,000,000 or so.  Wow.  What caused this?  Obviously, loss of jobs and an exodus of people.

I know its been quite popular to pick on the domestic manufacturers, particularly General Motors, but I don’t care if they’ve revamped themselves and become a brand new company, I’m not going to give them a free pass for what they did in the past, so walk with me down memory lane and some of GMs greatest failures, the results of attempts at badge engineering – building a “world” car – or more simply put, taking a car and slapping a different brand name on it.

To me, the very first car that comes to mind when I think of badly badge engineered is the Cadillac Cimmaron, introduced in the year of my birth – 1981.  Put bluntly, the Cimarron was a J-Body (Cavalier) that had Cadillac badges pasted to it.  Now, aside from the fact that the Cimarron was everything that Cadillac wasn’t (FWD vs. RWD, small vs. large, cheap vs. luxurious), the attempt to pawn off a Cavalier on the buying public as something other than a Cavalier spoke volumes of the greed, avarice, and arrogance that engulfed the management at General Motors during this era.  They truly thought the American consumer was too dumb to notice and rather than seeking excellence and creating a car that deserved the old Cadillac adage of “The Standard of the World“, they delivered to the unsuspecting consumer the bottom of the barrel.

The base price of a Cimarron was $12,181.  For comparison’s sake, the base price of a Cavalier was about half of that.  This is standard practice for GM though – short term profits at the expense of long term damage to the brand’s reputation.  As buyers caught on to the scam that GM was perpetrating, sales fell off – the long term fate of this car? CANCELLED.

They apparently didn’t learn their lesson with Cadillac and repeated this again 20 years later with the XLR – essentially a rebadged Corvette with a 4.6L Northstar engine rather than the efficient and capable pushrod V8 from the Vette.  Not to mention, Cadillac charged twice as much for a car that was heavier and slower (and uglier).  This car was a miserable sales failure.  As a result . . . CANCELLED.

I could probably fill a book with the badge engineering sins against God that GM continued with Pontiac.  Suffice to say, I don’t have all day to blog, so lets just touch on this.  Essentially, since the early 80s, the vast majority of Pontiac cars were nothing more than rebadged versions of Chevrolets.  There was nothing to distinguish the brand from Chevrolet other than tacked on hoods and scoops in a garish attempt to play to Pontiac’s past history as the “excitement” division.  Unfortunately, in the process of scraping off the Chevy bowtie and gluing on the Pontiac arrow as well as some silly venting, they forgot to actually inject any excitement into any of Pontiac’s cars.  The end result for the entire brand? CANCELLED.

Now, on to the really good stuff – the transplanted crap.  Cars from other countries that GM dumped on our shores after slapping a new badge on the grill.  One would traditionally assume that with a rational, sane, individual with average intelligence, one learns from one’s mistakes and then does not repeat them.  Unfortunately, GM was not an individual, but rather a bunch of egos crammed together, fighting each other for dominance with the end result being that the same mistake was repeated again and again.  Let’s go down the list.

First up, the Holden Monaro.  A great idea, in concept.  Stuff a Corvette engine into a large bodied coupe with an independent rear suspension, and sell it for a reasonable a mount of money (more than a Camaro, less than a Corvette – add leather to make it “fancy”).  This worked ok in Australia, but then GM decided to bring it to America with two changes.  First, they switched the badges and made it a Pontiac (still a rebadged GM car and not a unique platform to Pontiac itself – par for the course).  Then, they decided to equip it with larger tires.  This resulted in a TSB and rubbing/suspension damage because GM never bothered to test the car as equipped – they just threw it at the marketplace.  The GTO lasted from 2004 to 2006 with miserable sales, and then?  CANCELLED.

But wait, there’s more!  Lots more.  As if throwing a big V8 powered coupe at Americans and telling them that it was what they wanted (it wasn’t) weren’t enough, GM decided to give it another go by importing the Holden Commodore – essentially a big, V8 powered Sedan, again from Australia.  Named the G8 and given some hideously ugly hood scoops, this car was foisted upon the market in the midst of gas price spikes.  Never mind that American consumers were shifting to fuel efficient, front wheel drive four door sedans like the Camry, Accord, Fusion, Altima, and Sonata – GM was going to pawn this car off and hope we bought it.  We didn’t.  The car lasted on the market place for the entire year of 2008 and 2009 until it met its fate.  CANCELLED.

Next, a car that was actually quite good – the Saturn Astra.  Essentially an Opel (GM in Europe) Astra with no changes whatsoever, this car was TOO good for Americans.  It traded some ride quality for zippy handling and sported a free revving engine.  This isn’t what Americans want – Americans want a wafting, wallowing ride with an engine that develops its torque down line – we don’t like to wait and we don’t want to rev.  On top of that, the car scored marginal at best in many safety ratings.  The final nail in the coffin is the body style – hatchback?  Really?  Americans hate hatchbacks.  Give us sedans!  After dismal sales in 2008 and 2009 . . . CANCELLED.

How about fun, sporty cars?  Well, GM decided that they would import the Open GT and call it the Pontiac Solstice.  They decided what the hell, we already badge engineer all our other cars, lets also turn it into the Saturn Sky.  Unfortunately, they forgot how lazy Americans are.  We don’t like to get out of our convertibles to put the top down.  The convertible top mechanism on this car was so convoluted and complicated it required the user to get out of the car and manually open clamshells and stuff the top down there.  The closest competition, the Miata, had one twist knob and then the top threw back, from inside the car.  It was a bad car, badge engineered, and couldn’t compete on function.  Not to mention it couldn’t match the Miata’s performance due to about 300 extra pounds of pork on the body.  It lasted from 2007-2009.  CANCELLED.

Last, and certainly worst – the Chevy Aveo.  GM has never been able to build a competitive small car, and when they decided they wanted to compete in the smaller-than-small segment currently dominated by such fun-to-drive vehicles as the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta and Mini Cooper, their solution was that instead of developing a competitive car, why don’t we just import the biggest piece of crap we can get from Korea in the form of the Daewoo Kalos.  This car was miserable.  Terrible to drive, horribly unsafe, not enough power to safely merge into a 25 mph school zone – it was and still is unsurprisingly a miserable sales failure.  GM’s theory on this car was that it was better to have an uncompetitive competitor in the segment than to have a good car that would actually take time and money to develop.  The end result is that this car is a rental fleet queen, a penalty box – a car for people who want a new car but probably should be driving a quality used car.  I can’t imagine that anyone intentionally or deliberately wants to drive one of these things.

Oddly enough, the Aveo hasn’t been cancelled.  It is currently GM’s only offering in the super-small car segment and as such it fights on as a disposable soldier, thrown into the fray with vastly more competitive offerings.  Nonetheless, it is the worst of the worst when referring to GM’s decision to import a small car rather than develop one of their own, and the sales figures prove it.

Lessons learned – while it may be easy and cheaper to import some car that is totally inappropriate for the American buying public, the damage to the brand’s reputation and loss of market share compared to actual competition is damaging.  Old GM had no long term vision, they could only see short term profits.  This is why they relied on large SUVs prior to the recent oil crisis.  This crisis merely exposed GM’s weakness and reliance on uncompetitive vehicles, which eventually drove them to bankruptcy.  I don’t see these sins being repeated with regularity, but I believe that given time GM will continue on the same path and won’t disappoint us by foisting uncompetitive crap on unwary buyers who don’t know any better.


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