GM reveals an EV for (almost) every purse and purpose

To take on the electric future, General Motors turns to its past

General Motors’ EV day didn’t just mark the launch of a new flexible battery architecture and an ambitious plan to deploy this underlying foundation across all of the automaker’s brands, including Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC.

It was a resurrection, albeit with a modern twist.

The company’s announcement this week gave new life to its brand ladder — a portfolio that ranges from the heights of luxury to the most basic utility — and tipped its hand about how it will bring EVs “across the chasm.

This game plan isn’t new. GM is bringing back a strategy that once defined its success and reshaped America’s automotive landscape. This strategy worked for GM until complacency crept in and the brand ladder collapsed. This time, GM is aiming to avoid these snares.

History lesson

Henry Ford’s moving assembly line birthed the early auto industry, but as American prosperity grew in the 1910s-20s, it was General Motors that laid the foundations of the modern car market. Under then-chairman Alfred Sloan, the amalgamation of once-independent automakers united under a strategy that would, in his words, create “a car for every purse and purpose.” From a value Chevrolet to a sporty Pontiac, from a discreetly plush Buick to a majestic Cadillac, and with countless brands in between, what became known as Sloanism birthed the idea that there should be a car to reflect every American’s self-image and social status.

Now, GM is returning to its Sloanist roots in order to solve an entirely new problem: How to make money selling electric vehicles. The brand ladder that Sloan invented to coax the U.S. market from the affordable Model T into ever-more profitable vehicles has been reborn, only this time it’s aimed in the opposite direction.

Today, the challenge is bridging the yawning gap from premium niche EVs popularized by hot new brands such as Tesla, Rivian and Lucid to mainstream relevance.

By starting with high-margin, premium electric vehicles, GM competes with the new class of desirable EV startups and starts to build scale for its EV architecture without sacrificing product margins. As scale and market acceptance grow, ever more affordable vehicles will come into the lineup, until GM has an electric vehicle for every purse and purpose. Given the failure of mass-market EVs like the Nissan Leaf and the runaway success of Tesla in the premium EV segment, GM’s old Sloanist model makes eminent sense.

Cadillac: Start at the top

Whether the goal is building up from a commodity market defined by the Model T or building down from a premium market defined by Tesla’s Model S, a strong brand ladder needs a truly aspirational brand as its top rung.

Cadillac has long lacked the products needed to return to its status as a truly world-class luxury brand, in part because the cost of developing a giant V-12 powertrain needed to compete with Rolls-Royce was so high that there was little chance of paying off the investment. Instead, Cadillac has been forced to share more pedestrian powertrains and technologies with its downmarket cousins, limiting its appeal to the most elite luxury buyers.

Now, Cadillac has an opportunity to compete at the top of the luxury ladder thanks to the massive, silent and effortless shove that electric power provides, along with a flexible battery architecture that allows it to share drivetrain components with far more modest vehicles without cheapening its prestige.

The vehicle with which Cadillac hopes to reset its image was also the only sedan GM showed at its EV strategy event: a massive flagship called the Celestiq. A dramatic evolution of its Escala concept, the Celestiq’s clean lines and curved rear hatch cut push the brand’s design to new heights of restrained bombast, like something that would be driven by the classiest and most sophisticated cartoon villain. This future flagship will be handmade in small volumes in the Detroit area and may well be the most expensive Cadillac produced since the 1930s, if not ever.

GM cadillac lyriq

GM hints at the next Cadillac, an electric vehicle called Lyriq.

GM also showed two other Cadillac SUVs that will support the Celestiq at the top of GM’s brand ladder. The first to market will be the Lyriq, a mid-sized crossover that will serve as an entry point into Cadillac’s new electric lineup. It shows off a new illuminated front fascia and an evolved “Art and Science” design language on the outside, as well as interior accent lighting and a 34-inch wraparound instrument and infotainment screen, all of which will become signature elements of future electric Cadillacs.

The second is a more classical and sculptural take on a full-sized electric SUV, clearly aimed at Range Rover owners and other premium buyers who wouldn’t be caught dead in an Escalade.

GMC Hummer EV: The red-state Rivian

The most immediately recognizable vehicles on display during GM EV day were the pair of GMC Hummer EVs shown in long-wheelbase truck and short-wheelbase SUV versions. If you’ve seen the Hummer H2 or H3, you know exactly what to expect from these 200 kWh bruisers, with just a dash of sophistication thrown into the aesthetic mix to help it steal sales from the more restrained and progressive Rivian electric truck and SUV.

GMC HUMMER EV Quiet Revolution Grille

GM teased the GMC Hummer, an all-electric ‘super truck’ that will be revealed May 20, 2020.

A roofline reminiscent of the Toyota FJ Cruiser turns out to be a removable targa top, promising to immerse occupants in natural landscapes undisturbed by the noise of a gas engine. Though roughly the size of the Hummer H2 in short-wheelbase SUV form, the long-wheelbase pickup version offers a larger and more useful bed than seen on past Hummers. Its blocky interior sports cues from the Hummer exterior design language, while incorporating subtle references to the Moon in order to remind owners of GM’s involvement in the Apollo lunar rover.

Though Rivian’s R1T and R1S seem aimed directly at the heart of the truck market when compared to the wild high-concept wedge design of Tesla’s Cybertruck, the Hummer EV is another step closer toward tempting traditional truck and SUV buyers to go electric. It does, however, struggle with one intrinsic challenge of Sloanism: overly complex branding. To fit the reborn Hummer into GM’s slimmed-down post-bailout brand portfolio, it has become a sub-brand of GMC, raising confused questions at the event about what the relationship between the two brands really is.

Buick: Reborn (again) for GM’s coastal aspirations

Buick has long been a brand that reflects the challenges of Sloanism, lost between Cadillac’s brash luxury and Chevrolet’s mainstream value, its identity torn between baroque American land barge and Opel’s taut, Teutonic minimalism. Now freed from its mission to rebrand German-developed Opel products for the U.S. and China, the GM “entry premium” brand has been rebooted to take direct aim at the runaway popularity of Tesla’s inoffensively handsome design language.

The two unnamed Buick crossovers GM showed both rode on compact wheelbases, with one cutting a sporty coupe-like figure and the other aimed more at family hauling. Both shared the brand’s new design language, which features subtle organic curves and a restrained grille-less front fascia with triangular headlights. The overall effect is of the kind of timeless, yet somewhat anonymous, sophistication that has not only made Tesla’s Model S the premium car to own in Silicon Valley but has also allowed it to soldier on for nearly a decade with only minor visual updates.

GM has long struggled to sell any of its brands in Silicon Valley — or anywhere in the coastal elite enclaves — but its new electric Buicks seem like its best crack at those lucrative markets yet. Miles from the heartland-pleasing chrome of its recent past, these unadorned yet pleasing vehicles would allow anyone frustrated with Tesla’s quality or service to slip seamlessly into the GM family without giving up the sense of driving the automotive equivalent of a Patagonia hoodie and expensive socks under your New Balance runners.

Chevrolet: The missing low end

Amid the flood of premium and luxury electric SUVs that GM showed off at its event, the missing piece in this reborn brand ladder is clearly at the low end. This is hardly a surprise, given that GM’s new Sloanism is building down and not up, and that the fruits of its success in premium EVs will be the scale needed to build affordable ones. Given the weak performance of big bets on entry-level EVs like the Nissan Leaf, as well as the competitive challenge of Volkswagen’s massive bet on affordable mass-market EVs with its MEB architecture, this approach makes a certain amount of sense.

The weak performance of GM’s first low-end EV, the affordable Chevrolet Bolt EV that went on sale in late 2016, was brought into focus by the Bolt EUV, which will go on sale next summer. This new EUV has three additional inches of wheelbase and rear legroom, making the Bolt’s back seat a much more inviting place to sit, although an optional sunroof prevents its flatter roofline from improving headroom.

The EUV is barely distinguishable from the Bolt on the outside, with only larger black wheel arches and roof rack rails to set it apart from its cousin. The EUV’s mild upgrade can’t help but suggest that it is probably what the Bolt should have been from the very start. The option to add the SuperCruise hands-free driver assistance system, which will be rapidly proliferating across GM’s product line, only adds to this impression.

Other than the EUV and a refreshed Bolt, GM only showed off one other Chevrolet EV: an unnamed compact family crossover sporting Chevrolet’s now-familiar design language. This lack of affordable EVs is frustrating, but eminently pragmatic: EVs are very much a premium market in the U.S. and GM CEO Mary Barra has promised that its new electric offensive will be profitable very early on, requiring it to start high on its brand ladder. If VW’s more affordable MEB vehicles avoid the Leaf’s fate and prove that a vibrant market for mass-market EVs already exists, GM can always accelerate plans for cheaper Chevrolet offerings.

Where autonomous vehicles fit in

The lack of affordable options on display suggests that GM sees the low end of the market shifting away from private car ownership. Cruise’s forthcoming Origin robotaxi has been positioned to provide affordable shared electric mobility on-demand, although that is likely still a ways off.

In the meantime, there are other ways GM could power affordable electric mobility.

“By vertically integrating the manufacturing of our own battery cells and drive units we can reach beyond our fleet and license our technologies to others,” Barra said, opening the door for another automaker to take on the risk of a low-price strategy. “We also see an opportunity to sell EVs to rideshare providers, as more municipalities begin to demand these services provide sustainable and zero-emission solutions.”

Can GM make Sloanism great again?

GM rode Sloan’s brand and management strategy to decades of dominance in the U.S. market, generating unprecedented profits and culminating in more than 50% market share in the 1950s and 60s. But over time, complacency set in, and the careful balance between the cost savings from shared parts on the one hand and brand differentiation on the other was upset during the 1970s. Sloan’s meticulous brand ladder collapsed into barely concealed brand engineering in which the only difference between a Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac was reduced to a tacked-on front grille and few other superficial styling details.

Avoiding that trap this time around relies on the fact that most of an EV’s cost is concentrated in its battery, and the Ultium architecture gives GM supreme flexibility in packaging the same cells in a wide variety of vehicles.

“For perspective, consider this: GM currently has 555 different internal combustion powertrain combinations in production,” GM President Mark Reuss told the crowd of journalists and analysts.

“The EV portfolio you see in this room can be supported by just 19 EV propulsion combinations, using our unique battery modules, drive units and power electronics,” Reuss said.

This radical simplification of the core components shared across GM’s product line demonstrates how electric drive has made Sloan’s brand ladder relevant again.

Sharing the same gas engine between a Chevrolet and a Cadillac would destroy the exclusivity that a luxury brand requires, a lesson learned the hard way during its dark period of “brand engineering” run amok, but no such penalty exists in the world of silent, software-defined electric power. Suddenly, the delicate trade-off between economies from parts sharing and the need to meaningfully differentiate brands and models has been blown up, giving the Sloan brand ladder another shot at relevance in the electric drive paradigm.

The lineup of EVs it showed at its Design Dome certainly showed that GM has no intention of returning to its dark days of brand engineering ignominy, but executing on that will still require a sustained commitment to its core strategy. If, as has happened with past GM EV efforts, big plans get watered down by new leadership, weak performance or an economic downturn, all bets are off.