In an astounding move, General Motors Corp. has shelved plans for a new Buick SUV because some potential buyers apparently hated it.
Asking the public for its opinion on a car before it rolls off the assembly line is a bold and innovative concept. Historically speaking, one of the reasons that Detroit has gotten into trouble is that its executives seem to think that they know what the public wants, even when the public doesn't. Witness the decades of look-alike models (Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable), weird bodies (Pontiac Aztec), and bad engineering (Chevrolet SSR).
In the case of the new Buick, General Motors apparently thought that it had a sure-fire hit -- until they actually showed it to people.
According to Bloomberg, "The decision was made Aug. 14, after GM earlier in the week showed the SUV and other future vehicles to consumers, dealers, employees, analysts and news reporters, Vice Chairman Tom Stephens said yesterday on a company blog [...] One blogger called it "hideous" and users of Twitter dubbed it the "Vuick.'' That's an unflattering comparison to the Saturn Vue, which is the basis of the scrapped Buick model.
In theatrical terms, GM figured its Buick was Hamlet; in reality, was more like The Moose Murders, one of Broadway's most famous flops. Instead of fielding the first place New York Yankees, GM had the hapless Baltimore Orioles. The metaphor possibilities are endless.
How GM could have been so oblivious to the vehicles flaws is another question.
Maybe the air has gotten too thin for Bob Lutz's design team to breathe in its ivory tower. Maybe Lutz's group found it demeaning to subject their brilliant designs to the whims of the public. Every artist, even masters like Picasso, worried about whether their works would sell. They would not be able to afford to eat otherwise.
GM has little choice but to try harder to give the public what it wants. As Bloomberg notes, Buick sales fell 26 percent to 137,2000 in 2008. The figure, which may have been bolstered by the Cash for Clunkers program this year, was more than 941,000 in 1984.
On the bright side, Buicks are, oddly, the brand of choice for bigwigs of China's Communist party. However, for GM to survive, it needs to have products that appeal to a broader base than just octogenarian despots in the Middle Kingdom. Paying attention to the views of its customers -- all its customers -- is a good first step along that path.
GM cancels ugly new Buick SUV. What a concept!