Wednesday, April 08, 2009

One of GM's many problems

I recently spent a week and nearly 3000 miles in a Chevy Traverse—one of GM’s minivans.  It was a 2008 model, so not the newest of the fleet, but it was still a nice enough ride.  While on the trip I was also able to spend some time cruising about in a Chrysler Town and Country.  It was also a 2008 model and a nicer trim than the Traverse, but beyond the added accoutrements it was a hands down better designed vehicle. 

 

The difference between the two vehicles speaks to the heart of one of the many the problems facing GM.

 

Handling

From the moment we fired up the Chevy it was clear that there was nothing “mini” about this van.  The engine was robust, the shape was robust, the interior was exceptionally spacious.  In fact, it felt like a full size van scaled down to minivan dimensions.  It handled the same way.  The thing was top heavy and steered like a truck—just like a regular van.  By comparison the Chrysler handled more like a car in large part because it was built from the ground up to be a minivan and handle something like a car.  Chevy went the other way and scaled down a big van.  The difference shows.  It’s glaringly obvious.

 

Space

The interior cargo space of the Chevy was far and away bigger in all directions than the Chrysler.  More headroom, more legroom, more space behind the third seat.  Even in the cargo bay the walls went straight up (like a cargo van) rather than curving in like the familiar “tube” shape that has come to be identified with sleek styling.  The back of the van was more vertical than the Chrysler providing, once again, more space in the area near the hinge and down the window of the rear door.  All these things allow the engineers at GM to say “most cargo space in class” and “more headroom” and “most legroom” and “most everything!”  The problem is that the extra space went largely unused and provided us a boxy looking vehicle.  Sure, it was more space.  But it wasn’t exactly useful space.  I’ve got a ton of storage space in my attic, but I’ve got no ladder to access it with, so it’s simply useless space.  This was clearly statistical design with the engineers in mind, not marketing design with the customer in mind.  It just didn’t work for us.

 

Cup holders

Yea, cup holders are kind of a stupid statistic when it comes to cars.  Engineers can put 50 in a car and call it a good design feature, but most of them are on the roof near the luggage rack, so it’s just stupid.  The traverse had 2 in front—perfectly fine for us.  In the back, though, there were 2 for each of the middle seats (4 total), except that the holders for the left seat were on the back of the right seat, accessible when the right seat was folded down.  The same was true for the right seat.  Consequently, even though there were 4 cup holders for the middle two seats, if both were occupied there were no cup holders in the middle row.  For the back row we were able to identify 2, on a row that seated 3. 

That’s no big deal by itself—you don’t base a $35,000 decision solely on cup holders.  However, when you begin to consider 1500 mile trips across the country with a van full of kids and luggage, and you add in the boxiness of the vehicle, and the wasted space, and the other little things that were minor (yet noticeable) issues, cup holders can definitely be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Besides, if they’re not a big deal, the engineers wouldn’t have any problem listening to the marketing guys who tell them that cars should have as many cup holders as they have passengers.

 

Seating

The available seating for both vehicles was the same—7 passengers.  The Chrysler had an electronic rear seat which is nice, but the Traverse didn’t have that feature so it doesn’t count.  What the Chrysler DID offer, though, was the stow-and-go seating, which DOES count.  During the trip I had to remove one of the rear seats in the Chevy.  To accomplish this I had to physically remove the seat and drag that heavy sunnuvabitch back to the room to store it.  Were I at a store and had decided to buy something that required the cargo space, I’d have been unable to make use of it because I couldn’t have just left the seat behind.  Aside from placing the seats in a below deck storage compartment, the interior (or seats) could be designed to stash them along the side boards or to stack them closer toward the front.  But, no.  My only option was to hoist that heavy bastard out of the car and drag it to the room.  Meanwhile, the seats in the Chrysler just folded down and stowed in a hidden compartment.  This is a big deal.  It’s one of those pain-in-the-ass things that makes someone decide to spend the extra $2500 to buy the seats that stow under the floor boards.  But engineers look at it and see a quick and convenient solution—just take the seats out, then we don’t have to muck around with the undercarriage stuff.  Marketers look at it and say “the dad doesn’t want to hoist this heavy bastard out of the car after a trip to Disney World, make it work!”

 

All in all, the Traverse was a very well engineered vehicle.  It was relatively comfortable and easy to drive.  But if everything (including the price) is the same, I’d pass and buy the Chrysler.  Cut the price (and profit) enough, and you’d convince me the Traverse is a good buy.  And therein lies the problem.  Improve the produce you can increase the price.  There’s a reason Chrysler can fetch premium money for a Town and Country and Chevy can’t give away their Traverses, and it has nothing to do with health care costs for union members.

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