San Antonio Express-News
Despite General Motors executives' pledges during the past two years that development of new cars, not trucks, would be getting heavier emphasis at the giant automaker, the word from Detroit now is that some of those cars have been delayed indefinitely so more trucks can come to market quicker.
The automaker announced this week it is shelving plans to develop its so-called Zeta premium midsize rear-drive vehicle architecture for a new line of cars for the North American market.
Instead, money that had been allocated to that program will be diverted to help bring the next generation of GM's full-size sport utility vehicles and pickups to market.
Those programs won't be speeded up, as has been speculated in various automotive media recently, but because of GM's current financial crisis, including an expected drop of 80 percent in earnings for 2005, the company needs to put most of its new-vehicle development money into the truck side, which is responsible for most of the company's profits.
"Basically, we're taking some of the resources allocated to premium rear-drive cars and putting those resources toward the full-size SUVs," spokesman Pat Morrissey said.
The SUVs — including the popular Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade — will be first, coming to market in their newest forms next January as 2006 models, followed by the company's full-size pickups for model year 2007.
All of these vehicles are developed on the same chassis platform, but when they were updated last, the pickups came to market first, in 1999, and the full-size SUVs a year later. This time, the SUVs are coming first.
As for the rear-drive cars, the strategy is one of delay, not cancellation, the company said.
"The key point is that in no way is GM abandoning its rear-wheel-drive strategy," Morrissey said.
"We have several new rear-drive cars on the market now, including the Cadillac CTS and STS, and we have two roadsters coming — the Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice. We simply are restudying now what is the best approach to rear-wheel drive."
GM will continue development of the Zeta architecture for other world markets, including Australia, Morrissey said.
"We have stopped work on applications of this architecture for North America only," he said. "We have other options for North America, and we will be looking at those."
Zeta is not the only rear-drive platform the company has been developing. The CTS, STS and Cadillac SRX are built on the Sigma architecture, and the Sky and Solstice are on a platform known at GM as Kappa.
Zeta is a platform for premium midsize cars, while Sigma has been developed for luxury cars. Adapting that chassis to other applications is an alternative.
"I can't say at this point when we might do something," Morrissey said.
Chassis platform development is quite costly, and automakers try to develop as many individual vehicles from each platform as possible to help justify the billions it can cost for a new platform.
GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz announced the news about Zeta on his GM blog site, fastlane.gmblogs.com, in a posting dated Monday.
"Some news broke today about a reshuffling of our product plan, and I just want to clear one thing up before people get carried away," Lutz said.
"Yes, we have canceled our plans to build rear-wheel-drive vehicles off the Zeta architecture. But that does not mean we've canceled plans to build rear-drive vehicles altogether.
"We did not cancel the Zeta plans to save money, or to divert funds elsewhere that would've been used for product development.
"We are simply reallocating resources (human and financial) to pull some other programs ahead and get other vehicles to market sooner. The press speculates this means we're doing it to get our next-generation large SUVs and pickups out sooner. You could see how one might reasonably come to such a conclusion.
"Rest assured, we remain committed to developing RWD premium high-performance affordable vehicles, perhaps even a few with a trace of nostalgia baked in," the posting said.
The next-generation rear-drive platform is of special interest to Lutz because it is supposed to be the basis for the second generation of the modern Pontiac GTO.
The current GTO, pushed through development by Lutz, uses a rear-drive chassis designed by GM's Opel division in Germany. It also is used on a line of vehicles made in Australia. The GTO, introduced for model year 2004, is built in Australia by GM's Holden division. It comes with a version of the V-8 engine used in the Chevy Corvette.
There also has been speculation that the Zeta platform would be used to revive the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird/Trans Am, which were discontinued at the end of model year 2002.
Morrissey declined to discuss any plans to bring back those two icons of the muscle car/pony car era, saying any suggestion that they might have been revived on the Zeta platform "was purely speculation."
It's hard to imagine, though, that GM isn't looking hard at bringing back the Camaro and Firebird, especially in light of the popularity of the retro-styled 2005 Ford Mustang, which is the biggest automotive hit of the year. GM officials are wincing at the Mustang's success and wishing they had a Camaro and Firebird doing the same thing, you can be sure.
Most of GM's cars are on front-drive platforms, but there has been an industry-wide shift back toward rear-drive cars during the past couple of years, and most automakers either already have some new rear-drive cars or are developing them.
Lexus, for instance, is about to introduce the next generation of its near-luxury, sport-oriented IS rear-drive car lineup, with four distinct models, up from the current two (a sedan and a wagon). The new ones will be a coupe and a hardtop convertible.
Chrysler Group has two big hits on its hands — the Chrysler 300 sedan and Dodge Magnum wagon, both of which are on a new rear-drive platform developed by DaimlerChrysler. A third model, the Dodge Charger sedan, will be on the market soon, also on this platform. All of these offer a Hemi V-8 engine as an option.
Most baby boomers remember when rear-drive cars were the rule, rather than the exception. Chevys, Fords, Dodges, Plymouths, Chryslers, Buicks, Pontiacs and most other cars we grew up with came with rear-wheel drive.
Although GM began introducing front-drive cars in the '60s that have carried over to some of today's higher-priced models, front drive really was made popular by the Japanese imports, beginning in the '70s.
Eventually, most American cars went to the front-drive format. Front drive is great on snow or ice but is not considered the best setup for sporty vehicles and performance driving.
BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar long have embraced rear-drive platforms, as do most Lexus vehicles.
When the Camaro and Firebird were discontinued, GM said the platform they were based on had become outmoded, unable to meet new federal safety standards.
Company officials said privately that GM had no new rear-drive platform to use for a new generation of those sporty cars, but that the company probably would consider bringing them back with the development of new rear-drive architecture in the not-too-distant future.
There is some speculation that cars such as those could re-appear on the same chassis as the current GTO, but I don't consider that likely. If GM has plans to abandon that platform in the near future, development of new vehicles on that architecture wouldn't seem to be likely.
Who knows, though? The great success of the new Mustang could prompt GM to create a new Camaro and/or Firebird on an existing platform at least as a stopgap measure.
GM really needs a hit like the Mustang in its Chevy and Pontiac lineups. The GTO has been a real disappointment, mostly because of its bland styling.
A striking retro-style Camaro/Firebird on the same chassis might be a great success, even if it were to have only a short life of three or four years. By that time, GM probably would have its new rear-drive platform ready to go.