Failures and breakthroughs – exposed, reflected, considered

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The rise and demise of GM’s Saturn

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Not very long ago, on a cold, wintry day of January 1985 the top man at GM, Roger B. Smith, unveiled ‘Saturn’, the first new brand to come out of GM in almost seven decades. A stand-alone subsidiary of GM, Saturn had a promising birth and was touted as a ‘different’ type of a car. Having its own assembly plant, unique models and separate retailer network, Saturn operated independently from its parent company. It was a cut above the rest in using innovative technology and involving its employees in the decision making process. Conceived as a fighter brand to take on the Japanese brands, the small car of superior quality was the product of strong principles with a mission of being America’s panacea to Japan’s challenge. It reaffirmed the strength of American technology, ingenuity and productivity with the combination of advanced technology and latest approaches to management.

Though a revolutionary idea, Saturn wasn’t able to live up to the hype or the hopes of Roger Smith. The case of Saturn is definitely one for the books. Its marketing campaign fired up the public’s imagination and interest perfectly while the product was a miserable failure. Everything the company did was just another leaf out of the handbook of perfect PR. When the first lot of cars had a bad engine antifreeze, the company replaced the entire car instead of just the coolant much to the customer’s delight.

Besides clever marketing, Saturn’s biggest assets were its passionate employees and customer-centric approach which rewarded it with a quick victory. The victory was however short-lived as GM was reluctant to expand Saturn’s offerings for fear of cannibalization on the sales of its other divisions. For the existing models, Saturn’s engine had inferior motor mounts with the plastic dashboard panels giving it a cheap look and even the plastic-polymer doors, the so-called unique feature, failed to fit properly. Overall, the car neither had an identity nor a USP. To make things worse, Roger Smith was on a spending spree from throwing recall parties when vehicle problems were solved to hosting “homecoming” celebrations at plants. This saddled GM with high costs leading to increased doubts of Saturn’s survival among the leaders of GM.

Disaster struck further when Saturn’s sub-compact prices failed to cover the huge costs gobbled up by a dedicated plant with massive operating costs. The fact that the plant churned out cars that barely share any common parts with other GM brands did not seem to help at all. To top it all, at a time when buyers were snapping up minivans and SUVs, Saturn’s offerings were just limited to 3 small models for over a decade, thereby losing out on locking customers in. Just when GM was pondering over the decision of scrapping the car, the UAW visited one of Saturn’s production facility with its international contract, only to be rejected by the workers. As obvious as it seemed, the unique labor contract of the company was dissolved and GM had no choice but to part with the brand by dividing the production among other GM plants.

Automotive history has witnessed myriad failure stories of brands that were supposed to be world-class products but ended up biting the dust. One such underachiever brand was Vector which sprouted out of the aim of producing an American supercar but doomed due to cash flow issues, mismanagement and failing to keep up their insane promises. Sterling, Rover’s disguise into the American market, was another lost car of the 80s which most people haven’t even heard of. Their promise of delivering “Japanese reliability and refinement with traditional British luxury and class” couldn’t save them from continuous sales drop and combating competition from new Japan rivals. Few other epic automotive experimental failures which can be recalled in this scenario would include Chrysler’s TC by Maserati , Subaru SVX, Jaguar X-type, Lincoln blackwood, GMC Envoy XUV, Chevrolet SSR, Chrysler Crossfire and Dodge Durango Hybrid/Chrysler Aspen Hybrid. While some were design disasters, the others just couldn’t perform.

The automobile industry is governed by various factors which include the technology advancements of the time, economic conditions and fluctuations of consumer needs. The latest automotive chip on the block are the electric cars which are set to revolutionize the entire industry. LeEco, a Chinese electronics company is taking serious steps to target Tesla, what with it investing $1.08 billion on developing its debut electric car. Tesla was the name which paved the way for an electronic vehicle era. Whether LeSEE, LeEco’s concept sedan, can surpass Tesla’s performance and give them a run for their money is only something that time will tell. If successful, these electric cars could be the game changers of this century to usher in an electric future. If not, it will fade away and claim its place as a bittersweet memory on the list of flops that the industry has had.

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Written by Hayk

April 8, 2017 at 4:18 am