Is the timing right for debut of GM's new midsize coupes?

SUCCESS of the new Buick Regal - the first of the GM-10 cars to hit the road - is crucial to General Motors. Anything less than a rousing reception from the public could be a damaging blow to the auto giant, which has committed $5 billion to $7 billion to the two-door design. The GM Buick division has had first crack at the consumer with the Regal. A redesigned Pontiac Grand Prix went on sale just this week. Next spring the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme will follow, and Chevrolet will bring up the rear in 1989 with the Monte Carlo. These new midsize cars replace what was the largest-selling GM car line at the turn of the 1980s.

While the stylish front-drive Regal lines up nicely with a few other solid GM introductions - among them the Pontiac Bonneville and the Chevrolet Corsica/Beretta - the question arises: Is the timing right?

``While it is not a complete switch,'' says John McNeil of Data Resources Inc., a Lexington, Mass., consulting firm, ``I think that in the period since GM began to design the GM-10 cars up until their introduction, there has been a significant shift away from two-door vehicles.''

GM has been working on these cars since 1982. Now, however, people are buying more four-door, family-type vehicles, light-truck minivans, and cars designed to be sporty, rather than ``the quasi-sporty, hippie two-door vehicles,'' as Mr. McNeil describes them.

When Chrysler bought out American Motors last year, it scrubbed a two-door Premier that AMC had planned to unveil. Ford Motor Company made a strategic decision to stay away from a two-door coupe in its hugely successful Taurus and Sable.

The Regal is a stylish wedge with a steeply raked windshield, low hood, and small grille that rolls over the leading edge of the hood. Sitting comfort rates fair, both in front and in back, although three broad-shouldered riders would never be happy in the rear. Headroom is acceptable for most adults.

With four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel power disc brakes, the ride is comfortable and the car is easy to handle. An upgraded handling package is an option. Equipped with a 2.8-liter V-6 engine, the Regal is responsive and fast.

Are there no negatives?

To set the emergency brake, you have to pump it - and sometimes it slips. Surprisingly, there's no vanity mirror on the right-side visor, at least in the test vehicle. And where is the adjustment for the right rearview outside mirror? The designers probably could have done a better job with the windshield wipers, which leave a large area in the middle of the windshield unswept.

The radio, however, rates at least a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10 with its easily located on/off and AM/FM buttons.

The quality appears high, but it will take some time to see how well the cars stand up.

Badly scarred for its look-alike cars, GM pledges that there will be no problem in identifying a Buick from an Oldsmobile, a Pontiac, or a Chevrolet. The exterior sheet metal and components are unique to each GM division, although they all share the same glass. Simply, the challenge was to design four distinctive cars from one platform - not an easy task.

Either GM makes it big with its 10-series car or it will be even harder for the world's largest automaker to compete in the 1990s. Excess car-building capacity in the United States will reach several million a year in the next decade, and poor sales performers could be run off the road.

GM has watched its historic grip on the US motorist slip painfully over the past few years. The company has had to live with a litany of mistakes as it reshaped an unwieldy, slow-moving corporate machine in an attempt to meet fast-moving competition, most of it from Western Europe and Japan. Now, to further complicate matters, the competition also comes from Korea, Mexico, Brazil - and who knows where else?

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