DETROIT - It didn't take long for those of us in the automotive punditocracy to back off speculation that General Motors is about to cut loose one or more of its divisions. First, as I wrote the other day, Hummer looks about done. It will be relatively easy for GM to cut it loose, because it has a small number of dealerships in the United States -- about 170 -- and the franchises all are less than a decade old. Beyond that, it would be much tougher to get rid of one of the three in the Pontiac/Buick/GMC channel, or even Saturn. And it would be nigh-impossible to sell any of them, maybe including Hummer.
Now the product focus is on cutting overlapping models, much like what Chrysler is trying to do with Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep, by "tripling" all those U.S. dealers into one channel. No need for a Sebring sedan and an Avenger sedan. See? Or, as I wrote in my July 7 post, "No matter which argument you buy, the only cheap way out for GM (which can't afford more dealership litigation these days) is to better define its brands and" -- here's the I told-ya-so part - "cut model overlap throughout its four recently reorganized marketing divisions; Chevy, Saturn, Cadillac/Saab/Hummer and Pontiac/Buick/GMC."
CAUTION: even this isn't as easy as it looks. If GM cuts the Pontiac G5 because you can buy a virtually identical Cobalt in Chevy dealers, Pontiac/Buick/GMC stores will complain they're not getting the fuel-efficient models they need. And let me remind you that because of state laws and franchising agreements, car dealerships of every stripe have lots of power in these matters. As we reported here last month, Pontiac has certified the G3 (Chevy Aveo) for potential sale in the States; it's sold as the G3 in Mexico and as the Wave in Canada.
So based on the old Alfred P. Sloan model of "a car for every purse and purpose," here is how I think the GM lineup should, and probably will look in coming years. At first glance, there's not much consolidation. But by rationalizing the "middle" divisions, GM can make substantial cuts. Of course, there will be a number of new small cars entering the lineup, mostly as Chevys, Pontiacs and Saturns.
Chevrolet: Entry-priced small and midsize cars and trucks, plus two halo cars. Aveo, Cobalt replacement, Malibu, FWD/AWD Impala (on stretched Epsilon), Volt (here's hoping), Equinox, Traverse, Colorado, Silverado, Tahoe, Suburban, Camaro (next-gen on Alpha platform), Corvette. Bob Lutz says we may get a second-generation Beat (the first one is too expensive for the U.S.)
Pontiac: Chevrolet-plus, just like the old days. Current fuel prices may require retaining the G5, although the Vibe, with better marketing, could serve channel's entry small-car needs. Also, Solstice, G6 sedan/coupe, G8.
Saturn: Entry-level-plus FWD Americanized Opels. Meriva, American-built Astra, Sky, Vue, Aura and one additional semi-premium small car.
GMC: To Chevy truck what Pontiac is to Chevy cars. Canyon, Sierra and Yukon/XL, Terrain (replaces Pontiac Torrent). Drop Acadia.
Buick: Fills in for sub-$40k Cadillacs. LaCrosse/Invicta starts at a price and content level $5,000 above G6 (making it a kind of value-priced Lexus ES350), Enclave, RWD Lucerne replacement with softer, more luxurious ride and handling vs. G8's sportiness, priced $5,000 above G8. Small, brand-focused lineup lets Pontiac make up the volume at Pontiac/Buick/GMC dealers.
Saab: Fills in for sporty sub-$40k Cadillacs, with all FWD/AWD lineup. Premium-entry Mini Cooper fighter, 9-3, 9-5, 9-4 crossover. Turbo fours remain the primary engines, with some 2.8-liter gas direct-injection V-6s. Sharing dealerships with Cadillac would create decent competition for BMW/Mini dealers.
Cadillac: The top. Alpha-based 3 Series-fighter, full-range of CTSes, new larger flagship (replacement for converged STS/DTS), XLR, Escalade (but no EXT or ESV) perhaps hybrid and/or diesel-only (tout long range as one of its luxuries), Provoq-based small crossover (Theta-plus platform shared with Saab 9-4.) Gas direct-injection V-6s and leading edge powertrains, including hybrid/plug-in hybrid and diesel.