GM rolls out its J-car to meet the Japanese competition

If D-Day 1944 meant the storming of the Hitler-occupied French coast by the Allies, J-Day 1981 means the storming of the Japanese US auto empire by GM. Launched this week by the world's biggest vehiclemaker, General Motors, the brand-new subcompact J-car has one purpose alone -- to help blunt the Japanese onslaught on the American auto market and get consumers to "thinking US" once more.

As Detroit's most ambitious project to date to meet the Japanese head-on, it should have some success in its drive.

Indeed, the front-wheel-drive J-car -- Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac J2000, and Cadillac Cimarron -- are small, smartly designed cars with thrifty 4-cylinder engines and a "foreign" feel behind the wheel.

At the heart of the J-car project is the "big Q."

GM, in fact, is giving enormous attention to quality, something for which the imports are well-known, perceived or real, and even delayed the public introduction a week in its effort to achieve it. Never has the big US carmaker made a bigger commitment to quality in a product. If the J-car falls down on this score, it won't be because the manufacturer didn't try.

"I think the J-car hits head-on the high-volume area of Japan Inc." asserts F. James McDonald, president of GM since Feb. 1. "We have great confidence, because of our execution of the car, that we can at least stunt the growth of the foreign imports."

Of course, he doesn't look for that to happen right away. Still, by 1983-84, he predicts, "we'll be able to move the imports back to 14 or 15 percent."

What more can GM, or the entire US industry, expect now, anyway?

After all, while Detroit fiddled, the imports have been building up a huge constituency among US motorists. Many of them will never look at, much less buy , a Detroibuilt car, no matter what the industry builds.

Nonetheless, it is hoped that other millions of motorists, many of whom haven't been in a domestic automobile showroom in years, will at least drop by for a look.

Detroit is confident that some of them will switch.

"There are millions of people under 40 who have never been in a GM dealership ," asserts A. T. Olson, assistant general sales manager for Chevrolet.

Marketing strategy for the J-cars may or may not work. It didn't work for Chrysler Corporation last fall when it loaded up its K-car with options while lookers walked inand then out of the showroom. GM thinks the heavily loaded j-cars, on the other hand, will make it in the marketplace even as it waits withbated breath.

"I think it's going to call for a little imagination --maybe a different attitude toward the price," admits Mr. Olson of Chevrolet.

Robert Lund, general manager of GM's Chevrolet division, declares: "It's cheaper for GM to build cars this way and more efficient."

Prices of the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac J2000 start at $6,966 and run up to $8,452 for the wagon. The Cadillac Cimarron is priced at $12,131, midway between its designated competition, the imported Audi 5000 and the BMW 320i, even though it's basically a Chevrolet with "the Cadillac touch." Ultimately, Cadillac will have its own subcompact.

Some observers think the General Motors J-car may take substantial sales away from the two-year-old X-car but no one can be sure at this point.

While the Cavalier, J2000, and Cimarron give a good account on the road, the 1.8-liter engine is quite slow away from the light, although the performance curve sweeps upward as the speed goes up. The automatic-transmission engine also has an annoying habit of surging and then falling back while moving down the road. Why? The transmission's lockup feature, a mileage improver, is at fault, engineers say. The stickshift, on the other hand, doesn't have this fault.

As for the performance, the engine can be increased in size from 1.8 liter to about 2 liters, reports Mr. Lund of Chevrolet. That would help to make the car more spirited on the road.

Too, the J-car will get a turbo down the road -- perhaps in the next two or three years, according to Mr. Lund. "It depends on what the market wants," he says.

Ultimately, the J-car should get a diesel-engine option but that may be some time off. The small Isuzu diesel engine, which now is being sold in the Chevette in limited numbers, will not fit into the J-car. However, GM has a small-diesel program of its own.

"Fit and finish" is a big improvement for GM overall. And that's the whole point. If performance and price are pretty much on a par with the imports, then the buyer looks to the way the car is put together and displayed in the showroom.

US car buyers perceive the Japanese cars as having a high level of "fit and finish" -- and justly deserved, US carmakers admit.

"The imports have led in the area of 'fit and finish,'" declares the president of GM, "and on a consistent basis they have probably done a better job than the domestic industry. But that is temporary. And we're going to wipe it out with every car line we come out with."

Looking at the new lineup of cars, the GM president sighs: "It's a tough way to learn a lesson."

Thus, by revamping the way a car is assembled, as well as increased automation and incentive programs for the workers themselves, Mr. McDonald expects a favorable reception in the showroom.

"We're using lasers and robots to assemble the J-car," reports Mr. Lund.

"With robots you know that every weld is going to be perfect."

Then he adds: "When I was general manager of Cadillac, one of the things I did when the Seville was introduced, in an effort to try and build the cars well , was to build the first 2,500 cars exactly alike. I built them all with the same options, the same color, because I wanted people to learn how to build that car. It helped us immeasurably. Then after the first 2,500, we began to build variations.

The repetition in the J-car is such that it also will build well."

Chevrolet's Mr. Olson declares: "There are no pluses or minuses in the J-car. There is only one way that the car will go together."

Not entirely impressed, the importers are waiting on the sidelines to see what happens.

For the remainder of the 1981-model year, through September, the Cadillac division will get 15,000 J-cars, Pontiac 60,000-75,000, and Chevrolet 80,000. In the 1982-model year Cadillac will get 30,000, Pontiac 245,000-260,000, and Chevrolet 370,000.

But then, as in everything else pertaining to the car market, it's no more than an educated guess.

"The domestic industry is going through a tremendous change in its product lineup in going from a frame-and-body automobile with the rear-wheel-drive configuration to body-integral cars with front-wheel drive," asserts Mr. McDonald. "This changes everything you've got," he adds.

"I know people appreciate the fact that it changes components, such as transmissions, axles, and suspension systems, but sometimes they forget that you have to gut an assembly plant in order to go from a rear-wheel-drive, frame-body car to fwd. The whole assembly process of putting the car together changes.

"So this is a tremendous turnaround for the domestic industry."

The Buick and Oldsmobile divisions will get their own versions of the car in the 1982-model year. Too, GM will build versions of the car at GM plants around the world, including Japan, where GM has a 34.2 percent stake in Isuzu.

To paraphrase a well-known pancake-mix ad of some years ago, one motorist asks: "Detroit, what took you so long?"

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