: GM seeks comeback in big-city markets



HotRodSaint
06-13-05, 09:29 AM
In California, where one of nine U.S. vehicles is purchased, Detroit-made vehicles are often thought of as plodding gas guzzlers. Toyota, known for its bulletproof quality and environmentally friendly hybrids, is now the Golden State's top-selling brand.

Chevrolet dealer Richard Hibbard of Claremont, Calif., said GM executives have failed to recognize the unique challenges of the California market for at least 20 years.

"They are starting to come out of the fog bank," he said.

Hibbard hopes it isn't too late.

He wants GM executives to spend more time at dealerships to get a better idea of what customers want.

Don Peck, a Chevrolet dealer in Arlington, Va., praises GM's newest offerings, including the Cobalt and redesigned Chevy Malibu, as good, quality cars that he could sell -- if he could get customers to come to his store.

"We suffer from a mistaken perception by many consumers that our vehicles aren't as high in quality as our competitors'," Peck said. "It will be tough to break through that. We're in a position now where a lot of people won't even shop us."

GM has tried several initiatives in recent years to break through with customers, including zero-percent financing and a Hot Button giveaway promotion. GM spokesman Kuhlman said other programs are in the works to get more customers behind the wheel, where the cars can begin to sell themselves.

An old Air Force base in El Toro, Calif., has been converted into a test drive center for Cadillac. GM mails invitations to consumers who have been recommended by dealers or subscribe to luxury magazines. Once a month, potential buyers arrive for a full day of driving and the chance to pit Cadillacs against equivalent models from Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus.

GM also has a traveling test drive featuring all eight of its brands that moves from city to city -- an "auto show in motion," Kuhlman said.

Nonetheless, conversations with recent car shoppers on both coasts show GM still has work to do.

Cliff Roberts, a civil engineer who lives in Washington, didn't even consider a GM when he shopped for a small car a few months ago.

"I don't think GM has a good reputation for small car construction," said Roberts, who looked at the Toyota Corolla and the Ford Focus before settling on a Honda Civic. "GM was really out of the running. ... I can't even name a small GM car."

Roberts also said GM suffers from reputation problems in both quality and service.

"I don't have any facts to back it up, but those perceptions are so widespread, there's probably a reason for them," he said.

The same story emerges on the West Coast.

David Chase, 54, a Los Altos, Calif., hair stylist, still has bad feelings about GM after owning a 1992 Camaro convertible, the only convertible he could afford at the time.

"In a year's time, I had an over 1-inch thick dossier of things that went wrong with the car," he said.

Chase replaced the Camaro with a Toyota truck, and never had a problem with it.

"I don't think about American cars anymore," Chase said. "GM cars are not appealing. They're mediocre, generic cars."

GM's best showing continues to be in America's industrial heartland, claiming more than 45 percent of new car and truck sales in markets such as Youngstown, Ohio; Wausau, Wis.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Lansing; and Flint.

From its Midwest stronghold, it can be tough for an American manufacturer like GM to see what needs to be done in big coastal cities, said Robin Heintzelman, business manager at Covington Buick Pontiac in Silver Spring, Md.

The former Detroit resident said the peer pressure to buy American is strong in Michigan and extends beyond auto company employees and their families to include anybody whose business -- be it auto parts or legal services -- depends on the auto industry. That's not true on the East Coast, she said.

"In Detroit," Heintzelman said, "there's internal political pressure to buy American."

John Ourisman, a major Washington-area dealer, is managing director of a family-owned conglomerate of 14 dealerships that sells 19 brands, including GM marques. He thinks GM is very close to turning its business around.

"The Chevrolets we sell are equal to or better than the foreign nameplates we sell. The perception is not with quality, but with image, a difference in styling and design. We're closer to solving the puzzle than the market gives us credit for." (http://www.detnews.com/2005/autosinsider/0506/13/A01-212533.htm)