You are here
GM: It just got all too General
It’s not that we’ll terribly miss GM. But here’s a list of what it got right and what it got wrong in India
If you are done shedding tears, listening to auto experts, following pundits saying ‘I told you so’ and the all the opinions and insights pouring in about General Motors’ decision to stop selling cars in India, well, it’s not the end of it. To put it very simply, the two primary problems that lead to this is the size of General Motors – it’s too large a company to get things done, and excessive badge engineering – apart from owning many brands, none of us had any idea on what General Motors really stands for.
Hyundai is value and features, Maruti is impeccable after-sales, Toyota is reliability, VW is superb tech and dynamics. But GM? Even the company wasn’t sure. But India has seen Opel, Chevrolet, Isuzu, Subaru, Daewoo and SAIC cars all peddled as a GM, it was a cacophony of ideologies, labels and no clarity on market positioning.
Yet, GM did bring in some products that were absolutely perfect, some that reflected the company’s utter lack of interest in making cars and some that were so good, they were way ahead of their time. While others are telling you they told you so, we simply look back and the hits, the joys and the misses of Chev… no, Opel… no Dae... forget it. Let’s just stick to boring, staid and short GM.
In an India that was awakening to state-of-the-art tech like power windows and body-coloured bumpers, the Opel Astra was a just about the right attempt at opening GM’s India account in 1996. This was a car that was new in Europe in 1991. But then, none of GM’s competition who had just entered newly-economically-liberated India was exactly coming out with their latest and greatest. The Astra was a neat-looking, competitive car that set the ball rolling for GM. It didn’t set the Indian marketplace on fire. But three decades on, nothing has, yet.
The first of those ahead-of-its-time GM cars. It was on sale in India for just two years. To GM’s credit, the Vectra was introduced in about a year’s time of its international debut. As a result, it had all the tech that the average first-world family sedan would have. But with prices in the mid-teens, it was way more than Indians were willing to spend between 2003 and 2005. And like another competent competitor – the Ford Mondeo – the Vectra, despite being a good car, didn’t take GM places.
Opel Corsa Swing
The estate version of the not-too-bad Opel Corsa Sail sedan. India has had an estate – the Tata Estate way before the onslaught of international car brands. But as most MNCs were at least half a decade old in the country, they were experimenting with new products. And the early 2000s was when every major manufacturer – except Toyota, Honda, Ford and Hyundai – had one. An estate, I mean. The Corsa Swing was a neat-looking one that found a few homes. But like the Maruti Baleno Altura, Tata Indigo Marina, a couple of them from Fiat and a few others, the Swing did not really settle.
All that ails GM. In one package. Only GM would think of taking a brand with icons such as the Camaro, Corvette and one that’s been called the Heartbeat of America, and slap that bowtie badge on a Daewoo. Even in the mid-2000s, the Aveo was a boring car that seemed like it was put out in the market by people who didn’t care about cars. It was neither good-looking, nor great to drive. And no. By the mid 2000s GM did not have the brand cachet of reliability or service or resale value like the Marutis, Hyundais or Toyotas, either. At a time when they needed something as fresh, innovative as an iPhone, GM introduced a pager.
Right about now is when you’d think you should fill in the comment section about how we have the wrong car for the wrong story. But Toyota’s Innova was a vehicle that impacted General Motors. You see, till 2005, the Qualis was the go to for anybody who wanted a family MPV or anybody running a taxi business. But with Toyota pulling out the Qualis to make way for the Innova, Chevrolet’s Tavera got a massive boost.
Now, the biggest challenge if you are working with GM is keeping track of the brands owned by the company and the partnerships entered into by the company. So, GM had entered into a partnership with Isuzu to develop pick-ups and off-road vehicles for emerging markets in Asia. And the Tavera was an off-spring of one such derivative, the Isuzu Panther. There was nothing severely wrong with the Tavera. It was dull, bland and boring like every other MPV at that time, but couldn’t match people’s desire for a Toyota. With the Qualis no more and the Innova a huge price jump for taxi-operators, the Tavera filled its place. But then, taxi operators caught up and started investing in the Innova. The only time the Tavera got back into the limelight was in 2013 when GM did a VW by tweaking the MPV’s emission figures in India.
In 2006, hatchbacks were still perceived as things bought by people who couldn’t afford a sedan. And to that market came the SRV. After perhaps the Palio, the SRV was the only properly proportioned, beautiful hatch. It had acres of space if you were sitting in the rear and the car absorbed potholes and bumps extremely well. Plus it had a 101bhp 1.6 petrol. The kind of engines they call a hot hatch these days. But it had two issues. In 2006, it was about Rs 8 lakh on the road. And for that money, GM barely gave it any equipment. Besides, it had a squiggly gear-shift and a very disconnected steering. Yet, GM seemed to be on to something with the design and the space. But if it came with better equipment and a few years later when the Hyundai i20 had made people okay with an expensive hatch, the SRV could have been something.
If there is one car GM got absolutely spot on, it was this. The Cruze. Introduced in 2009, the Cruze was baiting the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. Brave for a company, which till then took one right step forward and would introduce something so silly, it’d have to take three steps back. The Cruze had design, quality, road dynamics, space and presence. As a product it was better in every way to the Civic and Corolla and was a dynamic match to the Skodas in that price bracket. The Cruze was so good, it forced people to ignore the maker and invest in the product. All GM had to do was continue the momentum with some more interesting designs and competent products. Instead, GM went ahead and repeated its same silliness of one step forward, three steps back with the…
Chevrolet Sail U-VA
You might appreciate GM’s attention to detail when they hyphenate U and VA. Sadly that’s the only attention to detail in this massive apology of an automobile. In my career spanning 13 years, this is the most pointless car I have ever driven and the lowest rating I have ever given – 5/10. This was a 3/10 car, but it had good ride quality.
At a time when GM was going somewhere with design and competence with the Cruze and the Beat, I shudder to think what transpired within their boardroom one fine afternoon that lead to the decision, ‘To get people flocking to our showrooms, we need bold cars, with confident design and make people abandon their first or second choice and consider a Chevy. So let’s have a confusingly named car, get it built, designed and conceived by a committee and get home on time for dinner.’
The Sail U-VA was a repeat of the Aveo. It was a pager in a market full of iPhones. But the Aveo was in the 2000s. It could be forgiven. In 2012, GM needed a make-or-break product. Their best effort. The knockout punch. And they came out with this. A pager of a car. Firstly, they name a new car after not one, but two of their average sellers of the past – the Sail and the U-VA. It’s not exactly resurrection of an iconic name. When I drove this car when it was newly introduced I had said, ‘whenever you have a bout of inspiration or courage or sight of an unachievable dream in life, all you have to do is look at your Sail U-VA outside your window, and they’d all come crashing down. Like a meaningless cricket match, it will get lost deep in the recesses of short-lived memories.’
The Sail U-VA was the last General Motors car I ever drove. Seems it’s going to be that way for a while.
Words: Sriram Narayanan