Posts Tagged ‘GMC Terrain’

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Drawing for the Future and Putting Pizzazz in GM Cars

April 12, 2015
Ed Welburn - GM Global Design VP

Ed Welburn – GM’s Artist in Chief

By Roger Witherspoon

Ed Welburn was as cool as ever.

A soft-spoken man with a quiet air, he moved through the centerpiece GM exhibit at the New York International Auto Show, barely glancing at the two showcase Cadillacs under wraps, which would be unveiled at a press preview in another hour. He would pause every now and then, look at the lighting, the angle of the cars and comment quietly to one of the many GM employees bustling around the exhibition hall.

Sometimes, Welburn would suggest a slight adjustment in the scene, the type of subtle shift one might expect from a trained artist. Other times, he’d drop a word of encouragement or appreciation to anxious staff. He walked alone, observant and confident, without the trailing entourage that usually accompanies top-level auto industry executives—particularly one who is playing such a key role in the resurrection of General Motors.

2015 Chevy Malibu

Family Friendly Chevy Malibu

These have been trying times for GM, which last year had to recall nearly 27 million domestic cars and trucks and another 3 million overseas because of a host of dangerous engineering defects. This is an important show for GM, which is showcasing some 80 cars and trucks in an effort to overcome the seemingly unending flow of bad news with a cavalcade of eye-catching, flashy vehicles capable of luring motorists and their checkbooks into showrooms. On the main floor of the Auto Show, which closes Sunday at the cavernous Jacob Javits Center, are world debuts of the Cadillac CT6, the Chevrolet Malibu, the urban-oriented Chevy Spark, and the heavy duty GMC Terrain. Then there are minor amendments to some of GM’s signature sports cars, notably the Camaro and Corvette, which are sleeker and faster than ever.

City-oriented Chevy Spark

City-oriented Chevy Spark

It’s also been a trying few years for Welburn, a trained sculptor, GM’s vice president of global design, and one of the highest ranking blacks in the auto industry.  Welburn, whose father owned an auto repair shop in Berwyn, Pa., literally grew up with the car industry and was mesmerized by the sweeping designs of the big-finned vehicles that hogged the roads in the ‘50s.

“Those cars took their design cues from the aircraft of that era,” he said, “which represented the top technology of the time.  We still take design cues from aircraft.”

The current edition of Cadillac CT6, for example, with its svelte shape and small, sharp angles, is reminiscent of the silhouette of the nation’s stealth fighters. So are the lines on the current generation of Camaro, which is on schedule to deliver its 500,000th model this month.

These mobile artworks are the products of Welburn’s design teams who collaborate via floor-to-ceiling virtual meeting rooms. His job has been to keep them stimulated and churning out new and bold ideas during a period of financial collapse and bankruptcy, followed by massive recalls due to safety issues. The difficulty is keeping the creative juices flowing with a disparate group of temperamental artists after the public acceptance of their art pieces have been compromised by the poor work of others.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Welburn with a sigh, walking slowly past the newest edition of the Malibu. “The key was to stay focused.

Staying Focused

Staying Focused

“When we went into bankruptcy there were people saying the company was doomed and all was lost.  I called the team together and said stay focused. This will pass. We will get through this and when we do, people will go to showrooms and ask what kind of car have you designed?

“And when they come, we have to be ready. We have to have the designs they want. And my teams focused on that.”

It wasn’t easy for Welburn to “stay focused” during the bankruptcy. He had taken a lot of pride in personally redesigning the Saturn line, from the extremely competitive SUV down to the Saturn Sky, a Barbie-doll of a roadster that was incredibly fine to look at but was short on interior technology. How well the line would have moved will never be known – GM killed the Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer lines as part of its restructuring.

Welburn Cruises in his '69 Camaro

Welburn Cruises in his ’69 Camaro

Without a pause, Welburn poured energy into fine tuning GM’s complete line, with emphasis on two of his personal favorites, the Camaro and Corvette. Welburn still drives a vintage Camaro.

Over the last two years, problems that surfaced with GM engineering – particularly the cover-up of faulty ignition switches – could have sent GM sales into a tailspin.  But the designs kept the cars afloat.

As the ignition crisis and the recalls accelerated, Welburn had another virtual group conference. “We had the same talk,” he said. “I told them to just stay focused on what we do best, and make sure we aren’t contributing to the difficulties the engineers have.

“We had to make our designs attractive to the public, and something the engineers could readily relate to because they, too, would be getting past these troubles.”

The designs kept coming and so did GM’s customers.

“GM took a marginal hit on sales in the short term,” said Jeremy Acevedo, analyst with Edmunds.com, the car shopping website. “But by and large GM weathered that blow really, really well. The truth is that they were unaffected in the long term. GM does a lot of things right, which is why they are the best-selling auto maker in the nation.

2015 Chevy Corvette Z06

2015 Chevy Corvette Z06

“Even amid all their recall woes they still sold 2.94 million units in 2014. That’s up from 2.79 million in 2013. Their design is the critical part of selling cars. Then there is performance and reliability.  Their design could have been compromised by faulty engineering. But when you have a manufacturer firing on all cylinders, as they are now, that is when they do shine.”

The importance of design in the reception of a car can’t be overstated.

“When you think about it,” said David Smedley, associate professor of art and coordinator of Howard University’s sculpture program, “the car is the largest form of sculpture that most Americans own. We don’t buy cars exclusively for their utilitarian value either: our self-esteem and identity is invested in them.”

And cars, if they are to sell and attract hundreds of thousands of buyers, have to be more than just well-engineered. They are conceived as aesthetic aids to the home, Smedley explained, with the engineering coming second to make the product work.

“In the process of designing cars, they are actually clay first,” Smedley said.  “They make a full-sized version in clay before they finalize any design. There is nothing like the physical form in front of you, and being in the same space as the vehicle, to get the feel of what these cars are going to be like. It is an emotional attachment, and it therefore makes sense for GM and the other car companies to recruit from fine arts, especially the sculpture programs.”

Welburn and his teams don’t just sit down and draw a car; they also have to predict the future. Automobiles begin as concepts, evolving into a drawing and then a full size clay model. But the process begins one year, and comes out two to four years later – when tastes, politics, fashion, and the nation’s economy may have changed radically. By the time an eye-catching design moves from the drawing board to the showroom, it may be outdated.

But right now, GM’s designs seem to be catching on.

 2015 Camaro with 525 Horsepower

2015 Camaro with 525 Horsepower

“The Corvette operates in an interesting landscape all its own,” said Acevedo, the analyst. “It is the American answer to the foreign sports cars, at half the price. And it has a loyal following.”

“The Camaro is another story. It has had competition from the Ford Mustang and the other Pony Cars, and it perennially slugs it out with the Mustang. In 2014 Camaro came out on top, selling 86,297 while Mustang sold 79, 675. The Dodge Challenger was behind with 51,611. But this year is going in the opposite direction. In the first quarter there were 29,695 Mustangs sold while Camaro sold 17, 320.  And that’s a design issue.”

The Mustang, in keeping with its 50 year anniversary, came out with a new, powerful, popular edition.  Camaro, on the other hand, is in the fifth year of this edition and despite the various minor changes, is looking dated by comparison.

2015 Ford Mustang - Running on 400 Horses

2015 Ford Mustang – Running on 400 Horses

But the 2016 Camaro, to be introduced next month, has been completely redesigned and the market will determine if Welburn and his crew have been using their crayons effectively. Currently, their plant is closed for retooling, Acevedo said, which limits sales until the new edition begins rolling off the factory floor.

Design has also helped GM’s truck division, which has a 35.7% share of the nation’s market – just 1% less than industry-leading Ford. The Ford F-150 is actually the world’s best-selling vehicle.

Ford F-150 - Still #1

Ford F-150 – Still #1

“But it’s the GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado that are doing very well against the F-150 and are keeping GM  near the top of the truck market,” said Acevedo. “Chevy in particular has taken a bite out of Ford’s market share. With trucks, buyers look first for utility, but after that, it’s the styling that counts. And the Silverado and Sierra have developed a very loyal base of buyers.”

2015 GMC Sierra HD All Terrain

2015 GMC Sierra – Still Trying

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Rolling in GM’s Little Truck

July 18, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

The northeast had been blanketed by a slow moving snow storm which dumped from a foot to nearly 30 inches of dry white powder and turned interstate highways into four-lane slip-n-slides.

The meandering road through Bear Mountain, in the lower Hudson River Highlands just south of West Point, provided a beautiful vista of snow-covered forests dotted with frozen lakes. But the drive itself could be tricky since the black-top was now white and more suited to sledding than driving. And it was getting dark, which meant Bambi and her cousins would be out mindlessly foraging in the frozen wilderness.

I rounded a Highlands curve at 1,200 feet in a GMC Terrain and was enjoying a great view of the valley below, leading into Seven Lakes Drive when I spotted three deer about 100 feet ahead walking towards me in the left lane. I swerved to the right – hoping the deer wouldn’t bolt, hoping the 18-inch wheels would hold onto the snow-blanketed roadway, hoping General Motors knew how to design all wheel drive, and hoping I wouldn’t wind up in the trees below – and rolled on past, wishing the Bambis a Happy Meal somewhere much hotter.

After that, I could lean back in the heated leather seats, look through the panoramic sunroof at the snow covered hills around and above me, crank up Miles Davis on the CD player and enjoy the ride. Snow covered forests and frozen waterways are gorgeous if you’re not dodging deer.

It also helps if you’re in a vehicle which can provide a comfortable sojourn while handling bad weather. In this case the ride was provided by the 2010 GMC Terrain, General Motors’ entry into a select, small-SUV market dominated by the Nissan Murano, Ford Edge, Hyundai Santa Fe, and Honda CR-V. That’s a pretty tough market, more or less created by the Nissan Murano and expanded by the eclectic Ford Edge. The Murano is particularly versatile in bad road conditions and the Santa Fe rivals the smaller Lexus for inside comforts. But the new GM, which has long prided itself for a line of big, powerful, pick-up trucks, belatedly decided it would not cede the small SUV market to everyone else. Hence the Terrain, an unmistakably arrogant, $30,000, GMC mini-truck with the ride and comforts of larger, more expensive SUV models.

GM’s SUV line eschews what it’s designers consider the “soft” curved, flowing lines of most of the mid-sized competition, and strut a distinctive, square-jawed, rather boxy shape – though its sharp angles have been rounded off somewhat. GM design chief Ed Welburn wanted its SUV line to have its own distinct look, and he has managed to distinguish it from the regular SUV pack.

Under the hood is a 3.0-liter V-6 engine cranking out 264 horsepower and 222 pound-feet of torque, which is more than enough to keep the Terrain ahead of traffic while towing 3,500 pounds. There is a base model with a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine cranking out just 182 horsepower and an anemic172 pound-feet of torque. While the smaller engine is adequate, the base model Terrain is sluggish when accelerating, the engine strains at highway speeds, struggles going uphill, and tows just 1,500 pounds – a ton less than its bigger brother.

The difference in price, at about $1,500, is relatively low for similarly equipped vehicles. There is a greater difference in fuel economy, however. The four-cylinder Terrain gets an EPA estimated 22 miles per gallon in city driving and 32 MPG  on the highway, while the six-cylinder model gets 17 miles per gallon on city streets and 25 on the highways. Both models feature a six-speed, smooth-shifting, automatic transmission

The interior has its strengths and weaknesses. It is extremely pleasing to look at. and designed for functionality.

But the décor is heavy on plastic which, on the doors, can look cheap in what is otherwise an upscale vehicle. The test models did not have navigation systems – something motorists might expect in this price range – but it does provide GM’s OnStar communications system which provides turn-by-turn directions. While that is a workable system, you are listening to a robot speaking from thousands of miles away telling you where to go and, since there is no map to look at, you haven’t a clue as to where you are. For some motorists, a map is a needless distraction and being told where to go works just fine.  For those who need more, a navigation system with a 7-inch touch-activated screen is available for about $2,100.

The Terrain does have an easy to use Bluetooth cell phone connection, however, with the sound emanating from the eight Pioneer speakers. The Terrain is heavily baffled, keeping out wind and roadside noises regardless of speed and enabling the sound system to envelope the passenger cabin with in a moving wave of music. The standard system comes with XM satellite radio, a single disc CD player, a USB port, both iPod and MP3 connections,  and a 10 GB hard drive to store your music or video library.  There is also an option for a rear seat DVD system with two separately controlled screens.

There is ample leg room in the back for the average six-footer. But if the passenger is in the NBA, the rear seats are built on rails and can slide back another eight inches. The mobile leather seats are a useful innovation whether one is transporting extra cargo or extra large friends.

The small SUV segment is a tough market to crack. But the late entry Terrain sold nearly 100,000 in the first six months of this year, an indication that a lot of motorists like the way in rolls.

2010 GMC Terrain SLT -1

Front Wheel Drive

MSRP:                                                                                   $31,775

EPAMileage: 17 MPG City                                                  25 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity:                                                                   3,500 Pounds

Performance / Safety:

3.0-Liter DOHC, cast aluminum V-6 engine producing 264 horsepower and  222 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; independent front and rear suspension; power front and rear vented disc brakes; anti-lock braking system; 18-inch aluminum wheels; stability and traction control; fog lamps; backup camera;  dual frontal airbags; side impact & head curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; CD player; USB port; 10 GB hard drive and Pioneer sound system with 8 speakers; Bluetooth  and OnStar communications systems; leather wrapped, tilt & telescoping steering wheel with fingertip audio, phone & cruise controls; heated front seats; folding, sliding, & reclining rear seats with 60/40 split; power sunroof; power liftgate; roof rack.

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