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An American idle

AT the moment the news broke, I had written two words of a review of the Pontiac G6: “Dump Lutz.”

On Monday morning, the news came that General Motors North America Chairman Robert Lutz and Group Vice President Gary Cowger were “relinquishing” their duties with GM North America to assume unspecified roles in GM’s global product development and manufacturing efforts -- compared with the high-profile role Lutz has occupied, this is like “extraordinary rendition” to Pakistan.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 07, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 07, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Car review -- A review of the Pontiac G6 in Wednesday’s Highway 1 section included a photo of a G6 with a six-speed manual transmission. The G6 that was reviewed was a four-speed automatic.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 13, 2005 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Features Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Car review -- An April 6 review of the Pontiac G6 included a photo of a G6 with a six-speed manual transmission. The G6 that was reviewed comes with a four-speed automatic.

Although GM’s chairman and chief executive is Rick Wagoner, Bob Lutz -- also known as “Maximum Bob” -- has been the point man for GM policy and future product design, the Great White-Haired Father, the Man with the Golden Gut, the auto industry’s most quotable and charismatic executive in a town where charisma is scarcer than banana trees.

In his 3 1/2 -year tenure, GM has lost something like 3 percentage points of market share. I was about to make the case that, given GM’s current China syndrome -- North American market share dropping to its lowest point in decades, and market analysts, sensing no real momentum for reform within the company, downgrading the company’s bond ratings to near-junk status -- someone’s head ought to roll, and the most likely candidate would be the numinous white noggin of Lutz.

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Cashiering Lutz, I would have argued, would be a positive sign for the street’s analysts that the company is serious about accountability. Indeed, it had to be Lutz, for symbolic reasons that go beyond the car business. Of course, the responsibility is not solely his, but the culture of executive exoneration has to end somewhere, and it’s not going to be in Washington, D.C.

However, given recent events, I have to revise my story. To wit: Dump Wagoner.

It was Lutz, after all, who candidly averred at a Morgan Stanley meeting last month that GM might have to phase out some of its product lines, even using the word “damaged” to describe Pontiac and Buick. In the ensuing furor, Lutz claimed his remarks were taken out of context and over-hyped by the sensationalist media, like that scandal rag Automotive News.

Wagoner memo to Lutz: Stop making sense.

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GM is a morass of a business case, but one thing seems clear enough, and Lutz’s mistake was to state the obvious and then recant: The company’s multiplicity of divisions and models is turning into a circular firing squad. How can four nearly identical minivans -- one each for Pontiac, Buick, Chevrolet and Saturn -- be anything but a waste of resources? Ditto the Four Horsemen of Suburbia, the Buick Rainier, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy and Saab 9-7X. How does the Pontiac Montana minivan square with Pontiac as the “Excitement” division? Why, exactly, is GMC on this Earth?

For a company so utterly devoted to each of its 11 brands -- counting offshore badges such as Opel, Holden, Vauxhall -- the overarching strategy seems to be to flatten the distinctiveness out of all of them in the name of global efficiencies. Take Saab, poor Saab. The new 9-3s will be built in Russelsheim, Germany, alongside Opel Vectras. The 9-2X is a badge-engineered Subaru WRX. The 9-7X is a Chevy Trailblazer built in the Nordic enclave of Moraine, Ohio.

Other recent Wagoner miscues:

GM utterly missed the boat on hybrid gas-electric technology and lobbied Congress not to raise fuel-economy standards on the grounds that meeting higher standards would divert funds from critical research in the ultimate propulsion technology, hydrogen fuel cells -- an argument that, shall we say, lacks authenticity. Today, GM has no hybrids of consequence on the street, while rivals Toyota and Honda are selling as many as they can build.

As part of a product reorganization, GM announced last month that it would speed up development of new SUVs and trucks in the pipeline and slow-walk development of rear-wheel-drive Zeta car projects. So, let’s see: At a time when SUV sales are cliff-diving, GM proposes to speed up big SUV development and 86 the mid-size, rear-drive future products?

This reallocation of deck chairs seems pointless when the real problem is the massive overhead of a company that cannot find the will to downsize. Capitalism, remember, is creative destruction.

However, the best case for a putsch in GM’s Renaissance Center offices is this: The cars aren’t selling.

Honestly, it takes some sort of perverse genius to make the Grand Am, the car the Pontiac G6 replaces, look like a showroom winner, but the G6 is selling at about half the volume of the unloved and unlovely Grand Am, which dates to the 1980s. Even a multimillion-dollar giveaway of G6s on “Oprah” in September wasn’t enough to fire up sales of this car.

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Six months into its life, the G6 has thousands of dollars on its nose and analysts are calling it a flop. Last month, Pontiac offered more incentive money as a percentage of MSRP than any other brand, a full 16%, according to Edmunds.com.

The G6 is not an awful car. It’s entirely adequate. But plainly, adequate is not nearly enough.

Exterior styling: The G6 sedan, based on the same stretched-wheelbase platform as the Malibu Maxx, has its wheels in the right place, nicely quadratic and corner-wise. There are a few odd proportions that add up to a kind of visual consternation: The car’s front tapers around the headlamps like a school eraser; the rear deck is more a rear bustle, with an arm’s length of sheet metal over the rear wheel wells; and wheels and tires themselves seem small when, at 17 inches in the GT package, they aren’t really.

Meanwhile, the detailing of the bodywork makes the skin of the car look eggshell-thin. I wonder how many buyers look at this car and wonder what is behind the billboard?

Interior styling: The GT comes with comfortable leather-lined bucket seats, nicely bolstered with heaters. I like the soft grip on the hand brake. That exhausts my praise for the interior.

The center console is a plastic fantastic with the now-familiar stacked boxes of the audio head and climate controls, and we know what comes with familiarity. This is pretty much a style-free zone in a larger moor of monochromatic plastic and vinyl.

The G6 does have a couple of fun features, both optional: an oversized moon roof that folds back in sections so that, lined up on the roof, the car looks solar-powered; and a remote starting function.

Some options are less fun: Side-impact and curtain air bags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes and traction control are all cost-extra options on the base model.

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Performance: The GT model I drove had a 3.5-liter iron-block V6 under the hood, good for 200 horsepower and no surprises at all. And -- though I can’t believe I’m writing this sentence in 2005 -- this pushrod six is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. It is because of this powertrain that the phrase “thrashy and unrefined” has become the hackneyed cliche that it has.

The electric steering is numb and oddly weighted. Though I thought the ride was very nice, the handling is pushier than a mortgage-refinance telemarketer. The car has zero appetite for hard driving. You want excitement from the “Excitement” division? Try to get this thing to turn in a sharp corner.

Bah.

This is an uncompetitive product, an assertion borne out not by my say-so but by sales numbers. When ballclubs have losing records, players and coaches and managers get their walking papers.

At GM, it’s time to sweep the dugout.

Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil

@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Pontiac G6 GT

Base price: $23,925

Price, as tested: $28,280

Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6, four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive.

Horsepower: 200 at 5,600 rpm

Torque: 220 foot-pounds at 3,200 rpm

Curb weight: 3,380 pounds

Zero-60: 8 seconds

Wheelbase: 112.3 inches

Overall length: 189.1 inches

EPA mileage: 22 miles per gallon city, 32 mpg highway

Final thoughts: What a car looks like when the wheels come off


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