Car Corner
Why can't GM build a decent sedan?

October 1, 2000
By Scott Lewis

Lately I have noticed the total absence of any decent 4 door sedans from GM. By decent I mean a sedan that has elements of luxury, performance and style. The two best examples of this coming from Detroit are Chrysler's 300M and Lincoln's LS.

You're supposed to drive an American car

Let me digress for a moment. I have an old album (yes, it is vinyl) of Bill Cosby's called 200 MPH. It is one of Bill's Best. One side of the album is a long drawn out story about a special Cobra Carroll Shelby built for Bill Cosby. The car was real, though I doubt if Bill's telling of the story is accurate. It is extremely funny. (Buy it if you can find it.)

On this album Bill tells of Shelby say to him, "You're an American aren't you? You're supposed to drive an American car."

I have always thought along those lines. However it has not always been easy. In fact it has been nearly impossible. The first new car I bought was a Honda CRX. It was a 89 model. The first year they dropped the Fiero. Anyone remember those. 

The Fiero was an unusual car similar to the Prowler. Hold your horses, let me explain. The Fiero was basically a concept car, but it was pushed into production because of how much attention it received by the public. The only way Pontiac could get it into production was to use as many off the shelf parts as possible. Sound familiar. So the Fiero used the front suspension of the Chevette, and the rear suspension was the front suspension from the Citation turned around with the steering mechanism removed. Talk about bad apples. They topped it off with a ruff, noisy 4 banger from the Olds camp. These were parts taken from some of the absolute worst vehicles in GM's history. 

Yet the Fiero looked cool. And it was the only mid-engine American car you could buy. Even the Corvette has eluded that, despite much encouragement to do so.

The Prowler also uses a lot of off the shelf parts, especially its engine which has provided its biggest criticism. But the Prowler succeeds where the Fiero failed. The Fiero got a completely redesigned suspension for 1988. It was actual good. It was the best Fiero yet. You could get a smooth running V-6 and a 5 speed for the first time that year. A true mid-engine American sports (?) car. But it was too late. The American buyer got tired fast of the crap that made up the Fiero for the first 4 years of its life.

Remember... the Fiero pioneered the concept of a space age substructure with plastic body panels that is popular in many cars today. 

If they had continued the Fiero until the 89 model year I would have bought it. At that time most American cars were not worth it. And nothing the Americans did in the mid to late 80s with small cars was any good. Even my beloved Camaro saw extremely poor build quality to the point I couldn't see myself buying one in 1989.

Great American Sedans

Back to the present. The Chrysler 300M is currently my favorite four door sedan in the low to mid $30K price range. It is big enough inside to seat 5, has the most horsepower for its class, has very good to excellent performance, is well appointed in line with entry level luxury cars, and has some genuinely good styling. A serious competition to anything in its price range from the other side of either ocean.

The 300M's styling may not be pleasing to everyone, at least it has some unique styling. I like it a lot. Car and Driver rated the 300M behind Acura's 3.2TL by a mere one point in an exhaustive comparison test. The 300M beat out Lexus, GM, and everyone else. But the Acura looks almost exactly like an Accord. Where is the styling? One of my best friends and a brother-in-law of mine each have an Acura 3.2TL. It is a great car. But when my wife invited a friend of hers over the same night as my friend I couldn't tell their cars apart. My wife's friend has a Honda Accord. If I were going to spend $30,000 for a car I would not want it to look exactly like a $22,000 car.

Next on my list is Lincoln's new LS. This is a break though car in my opinion. It is Ford's first new rear wheel drive car (the Mustang is still based on the old Fox platform and doesn't qualify as new) in a long time. In V-6 form the LS can be had in the lower $30K range, but climbs to the upper 30's with the V-8. Also the LS is available with a manual (only with the V-6), and a very good one at that.

I believe BMW with their 540i Sport and Audi with the A6 2.8 Quattro are the only other luxury performance sedans that offer a manual transmission. The Bimmer is clearly head an shoulders above the Lincoln, but it should be since it cost around $20,000 more. The Audi is closer in price, but still a fair amount above the Lincoln.

The Lincoln LS is a good looking car. I have noticed it looks a bit too much like Mitsubishi's larger sedans, but overall it is an excellent sedan with good performance and plenty of luxury in its price class. My only real complaint about the car is that Ford doesn't offer the manual trans with the V-8. That would make for a great sports sedan.

GM is out to lunch

What was the title of this column? Oh yea, why can't GM build a decent sedan? Both Ford and Chrysler have excellent world class competition in the entry level luxury market with performance minded sedans. Where is GM's line up. I had hoped the Oldsmobile Aurora would be the ticket. In its first incarnation it was a great looking car, and was probably the car that saved Oldsmobile from become GM's equivalent to DailmerChrysler's Plymouth (Plymouth will be no more at the end of the current model year).

But the first Aurora was underpowered and overweight. It also was a bit cramped in the interior for the exterior size. Luxury was about right, however. But the new Aurora lost its styling edge. It is more cookie cutter Olds in appearance, and ditched the V-8 for a V-6. They should have just trimmed about 500 pounds off the original and bumped the horsepower to around 300. That would have been a nice sedan.

Alas, the Olds isn't noteworthy. What else does GM have? Bonneville - too big and gaudy. Impala - No luxury, no performance. Malibu - A shameless use of a classic nameplate. Buick - Ha!

Pontiac had a decent chance with the Grand Prix. Here was a sedan that could be had in two or four door configurations and was available with a decent 240 hp supercharged engine  Unfortunately handling was well below par, and luxury just didn't cut it.

Beyond Sedans

Even my beloved Camaro is in despair. The Camaro and Firebird beat the Mustang in every measure of performance, yet Ford sells twice as many Mustangs than GM sells Camaros and Firebirds combined. These are performance cars. Why doesn't the performance champ sell the best? The Camaro should have gotten an independent rear suspension a long time ago, as well as tried to get away from the low slung bad boy racer attitude. It won't surprise me if the Camaro doesn't make it past 2002 as rumors have it. I will morn it, but it will not surprise me.

On the horizon the two hottest American cars I see coming are the new Ford Thunderbird and the Chrysler 300 Hemi C. Ford and Chrysler are going to build some truly unique cars with performance, luxury and style. What does GM have except the Corvette? GM needs to let its show car creators loose on production models.

Is it any wonder why GM is losing market share every year. GM sells around 25% of all the vehicles sold in this country. That may sound like a great number considering the number of car makers selling cars. But consider this, GM used to sell over 50% of all the cars Americans bought. 

Ford's Focus, with a late start for 2000, looks like it may take the title for the number one selling car. In fact, I think it may even be on track to be the number one vehicle beating the long running champ, Ford's F-150 pickup. This is a car with style (I don't like its style, but it has style none the less) and performance in an economy package. Chrysler can't make enough PT Cruisers to meat demand. Even the government had to pay $10,000 over sticker for two PTs for crash testing. This is an economy sport-ute replacement, and it has more style than a Mercedes or BMW.

Ford also has the number one selling Sport Utility with the Explorer despite the Firestone tire fiasco. Ford's F-150 outsells Chevy's Silverado and GMC's Sierra combined, yet the GM boys are newer and probably better in their current design. Maybe GM should have added bolder styling to their pickups for there 1999 introduction after all.


I wish GM would start building cars that inspire people to say, "You're an American aren't you? You're supposed to drive an American car."