Saturn Outlook 'Distinctively Different'

In the past, General Motors had a bad habit "badge-engineering" models in an effort to increase its economies of scale, as it minimized cost investments. While company officials would've liked to believe that different grill and trim treatments differentiated otherwise look-alike models, its customers weren't fooled. In fact, the company is still paying the price for those mistakes today.

GM has been doing a much better job lately of truly differentiating more and more of its models. However, the company still will occasionally release a car that looks suspiciously like one, two, or three of its corporate cousins. The Saturn Relay, Pontiac Montana, Buick Terraza, and Chevrolet Uplander quadruplets come to mind, along with the recently launched Pontiac Torrent and Chevy Equinox SUVs. Thankfully, with exception for the Relay (which the company admits was only short-term solution to give the brand a larger people mover), Saturn has succeeded in making sure its cars were unique in the marketplace. But with GM operating in crisis mode on the brink of bankruptcy, will more of Saturn's future models fall victim to the big cookie-cutter machine? The short answer, at this time, is no.

We've already seen the 2007 Saturn Sky and Aura concept. While both share their architectures with other GM models, most customers will have a difficult time finding any similarities with corporate brethren – even when parked next to one another. Following release of the Sky and Aura will be the launch of the Saturn Outlook, a midsize crossover sport-utility that's been internally called the "big brother" to the Vue. Sources tell that the Outlook is set to go into production late this fall in a brand-new assembly plant in Delta Township, Michigan. GM's Lambda architecture will be the basis for not only the Outlook SUV, but also the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, and at least a pair of all-new minivans that Automotive News has said will feature a spaceship-like design. To date, Buick is the only GM division to have unveiled its Lambda vehicle – the Enclave SUV – to the public. Not to worry though, GM's vice president of global design, Ed Welburn, told the Lansing State Journal newspaper that the Buick, Saturn, and GMC sport-utilities will be "distinctively different" from one another.

"In a market as competitive as ours is, for a vehicle to stand out, it's got to stand for something," he told the paper. "It's got to have a strong identity, both for the brand and for itself. Our customers are very demanding, both with interior design and exterior design. This is, I believe, a real breakthrough with SUVs and crossover vehicles," he said when talking about the Enclave. "It is arguably the most stylish, the most luxurious."

With regard to the Outlook, Welburn told the newspaper that Saturn's crossover will be "very different from the Buick. I would say [Saturn] is a very international design, very European." As expected, the Outlook will closely follow the same styling template first seem with the Sky roadster and Aura sedan.

So what about the Acadia? "The GMC is hot," the Lansing State Journal reported Welburn as saying. "It has got a flair. I think it will surprise a lot of people." Perhaps GM has finally learned that its customers want distinctive models.

Earlier this month, Ward's AutoWorld magazine reported that GM has created a special team to develop specific design cues for each of the company's brands. "I don't want any of our brands to be boring," Welburn told the magazine. He assigned Liz Wetzel, GM's first female vehicle chief designer, to lead the team. Coincidentally, Liz is the daughter of John J. Wetzel, former Saturn "founding father" and vice president of Saturn engineering between 1985 and 1993. She has been tasked to work closely with GM's strategy, sales, and marketing groups. "Usually there would be someone between Liz and me," Welburn says. "But it's a subject I enjoy very much."

The magazine says that the team is making progress with their work to develop and evolve each brand's design. For Saturn, the team will continue to develop its "decidedly European styling theme that links it with the Opel brand. An Adam Opel AG design studio has the lead for Saturn design." Welburn added that "not all the work will be done there, but [in this case] the language was created there." A total of seven GM studios worked on the Sky concept; the styling for the production version of the roadster was finalized in Detroit. Likewise, the "Saturn Aura also was developed in Detroit, although the design originated at a German studio," noted the magazine. "One German designer traveled to Detroit to work on the finished version."

Going forward, GM will increasingly leverage is global engineering resources for vehicle design, while marketing and production design tweaks will be made regionally. "What the customer sees will be unique for that region, but the underpinnings may be the same" as other similar-sized vehicles around the world, said Welburn. If executed properly, this strategy might just pay off.

Source: Lansing State Journal, Ward's Auto World, Automotive News

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