auto

The new GM reaches out to consumers

Tara Baukus Mello When General Motors emerged from bankruptcy this summer, it was with the assurance that it was now a leaner company that could make decisions faster and would be listening carefully to the opinions of its current and prospective car owners.

If actions speak louder than words, the "new" GM has made some very visible changes to move more quickly and to take consumer feedback to heart.

For one, it has embraced the Web, and not just as a way to push information out about the company but as a tool to pull in quick feedback from consumers. Atop its changes is the recent introduction of The Lab, an interactive Web site that allows consumers to talk with designers about design ideas and technologies for its future vehicles.

As is standard in the industry, GM has hosted unbranded, in-person focus groups for many years for feedback on a vehicle before it was brought to market. But this new Web-based approach allows it to reach out to a much wider audience and clearly defines the vehicles that are under consideration at GM. While the site requires a basic registration, users who provide detailed demographic information have the option to be considered as participants in Web-based and in-person sessions to provide even more detailed feedback.

A previous staple on the Web, its FastLane blog is now regularly filled with comments by GM employees responding to consumer's comments on recent posts, while the company's Tell Fritz page, which welcomes consumers' comments directed to GM President and Chief Executive Fritz Henderson, is gaining a following since its introduction last month.

As part of this more consumer-oriented approach, GM last month showed about 75 consumers the 25 new models it has slated for the next two years and asked for their feedback.

Among the vehicles consumers saw were six all-new or fully redesigned vehicles for the 2010 model year, including the Chevrolet Camaro, which has returned with a new design after a seven-year hiatus, and a redesigned Chevrolet Equinox crossover SUV and its sibling the GMC Terrain. Among its luxury brands, GM showed consumers a redesigned Cadillac SRX crossover SUV and a wagon version of the Cadillac CTS, called the CTS Sport Wagon, as well as the new Buick LaCrosse luxury sedan.

Consumers also learned details about several future vehicles. Among them were three small, fuel-efficient Chevrolets: the Cruze, Aveo and Spark. The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, now available in Europe and China, will be modified for the North American market. Competing against the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, the U.S. versions of the Cruze will be built in Lordstown, Ohio, beginning in April. The Chevrolet Aveo will be redesigned as a 2011 model. Only a five-door hatchback design will be offered and it will be larger and more upscale, and therefore more expensive, than the current Aveo. The Chevrolet Spark, which will arrive as a 2012 model, will be Chevy's new entry-level vehicle and is expected to get 50 mpg on the highway.

Feedback on all three Chevrolets and many other vehicles has been generally positive, though that wasn't the case with all future vehicles. One Buick, an unnamed compact crossover SUV based on the Saturn Vue, was scheduled to arrive in 2010 as a 2011 model, with a plug-in hybrid version slated to be added in 2011, but reaction to the vehicle was largely negative. According to GM Vice Chairman Tom Stephens, consumers overwhelmingly agreed that it "didn't fit the premium characteristics that customers have come to expect from Buick." As a result, GM's Executive Committee canceled the vehicle just one week after the product showing and only slightly more than two weeks after it was initially announced, though the company plans to adapt the plug-in hybrid technology to another vehicle.

"In the past, this (decision to cancel the vehicle) would have been a several-month process involving meeting after meeting ... before a decision was reached and enacted. This happened in one day," says Stephens.

While one swift product decision does not guarantee that the "new" GM has learned from the "old" GM's mistakes, it certainly seems to be an indicator that change is underway. But will Americans, who effectively own the company thanks to the U.S. government's 60.8 percent share, continue to voice their opinions about the kinds of products they want to see?

Will you?

If you have a car question, e-mail it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories.

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