March 31, 2009 -- Can one car save an automaker?
General Motors sure hopes so.
Many have tried but only a few have succeeded. Here is a look at some of those game-changing cars and those who fell way short of the promise.
Minivans: Chryseler's Family Auto Invention
One of the best-known success stories is that of the minivan.
In November 1983, Chrysler introduced the Dodge Caravan and the Plymouth Voyager. The world was never the same for soccer moms again.
"It's a far cry from today's minivan, but it really did revolutionize the market," said AutoTrends consulting analyst Joe Phillippi.
Chrysler dominated the market at first as other car companies struggled to play catch-up. That, in turn, helped turn the company's profits around.
"It's hard to imagine that it was 25 years ago," Phillippi said.
Chrysler's Birth of the SUV: Jeep Cherokee
Chrysler struck again in 1984 with the Jeep Cherokee.
This revamped, smaller version of the old Cherokee really kicked off the modern SUV age. It also came in a four-door version, making it a the first jeep that could also serve as a family car.
"They sort of invented the four-door mid-sized sport utility vehicle," Phillippi said.
But not every car is a success, despite Detroit's deepest desires.
The Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto both came out in 1971 and were an attempt by American automakers to compete with the compact, more fuel-efficient cars imported by Toyota and Honda that were then first flooding the market.
The Vega's reliability was … well, less than reliable.
Phillippi said Chevrolet came up with an all-aluminum engine, "what they thought was going to be an innovative way to manufacture" a car. The problem was that the engine cylinders wore out faster than expected and burned though oil at "an alarming rate."
Jack Nerad, market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said the car was crucial in hurting General Motors' reputation, compared to the reliability of foreign cars.
"What we've seen today is the ultimate culmination of many years of iffy, so-so products in the face of what turned out to be better products," Nerad said.
Ford's Big Blunder: Pinto
The Pinto lasted a decade and might have been considered a success story if it weren't for the car's safety problems. Because of a design flaw, the gas tank tended to rupture when the car was hit from behind, sometimes resulting in deadly fires and explosions.
To make matters worse, a memo surfaced indicating that Ford knew of the design problems but did a cost-benefit analysis showing that it would be cheaper to pay out any potential injury and death claims than to redesign the car.
"The vehicle just became a ball of fire," Phillippi said.
Maybe not as spectacular of a failure, but equally hated was the 2001 Pontiac Aztek. This car was groundbreaking as it helped herald in the age of the crossover SUV, vehicles that offer the size and feel of an SUV but the manageability and handling of a typical car.
The problem with the Aztek was simply that it was ugly. Really ugly. This was not the type of car anybody would have wanted to be seen driving around the neighborhood in.
GM's Chevy Volt: A Green Electric Car
Perhaps the most ambitious effort of recent times to reinvent an auto company came from General Motors and its engineering marvel, the EV1. This electric vehicle promised to revolutionize the market, the same way GM hopes to again today with the Volt, more than a decade after the EV1's 1997 debut.
The car came out of California's zero-emissions-vehicle mandate and ran completely on electricity. It had all the promise of saving the planet from excess greenhouse gases.
Then reality struck. The battery didn't last long enough, the car was tiny and not powerful enough for American drivers' tastes.
But the real problem was cost. GM couldn't find an affordable way to manufacture the car. The company went from being a leader in the electric car business to being known as the company that killed off the electric car.
"Instead of a positive in environmentalists' eyes, it became a major black eye for General Motors," Nerad said.
For the AMC Pacer, the problem wasn't cost but bad design. Sure, it was a bit dorky looking, but it was also impractical, with more glass than you could ever imagine on a car.
"This was like a fishbowl on wheels," Phillippi said. "It had extraordinary issues with the inability of an air conditioning system to keep up with the sun."
The Rebirth of Ford: Explorer, Crossover Flex
Ford stuck gold in 1986 with the Taurus. The car was more aerodynamic than most cars of that generation and had rounded edges that were practically unheard of back then.
"It was a dramatic departure from everything else on the road at the time," Phillippi said. "It was the car that saved Ford."
The other automakers quickly scrambled to redesign their cars with similarly rounded edges.
Ford hit success again in 1990 with the introduction of the Explorer. The mass-produced SUV led the way for an influx of the cars and cleared the path for larger SUVs, including Chevrolet's Suburban and Tahoe.
High gas prices and a tightening of consumer credit just recently drove people away from the profitable SUVs and helped lead to Ford's current problems. The company is now trying to reinvent itself with the Flex, a crossover vehicle whose success or failure has yet to be determined.
Can the Volt Save GM?
The Volt might be a great car, but many people have doubts it can save GM.
President Obama's administration raised doubts about the Volt in its review of GM's viability plan. The report said that GM earns a large share of its profits from high-margin trucks and SUVs, which are vulnerable to a continuing shift in consumer preference to smaller vehicles.
"Additionally, while the Chevy Volt holds promise, it will likely be too expensive to be commercially successful in the short term," Obama's team wrote.
"GM is at least one generation behind Toyota on advanced, 'green' powertrain development. In an attempt to leapfrog Toyota, GM has devoted significant resources to the Chevy Volt," the report said. "While the Volt holds promise, it is currently projected to be much more expensive than its gasoline-fueled peers and will likely need substantial reductions in manufacturing cost in order to become commercially viable."
Nerad also said the cost would be a major issue for GM.
"It can certainly change perception about General Motors but there has to be some skepticism about whether or not it can sell in sufficient numbers profitably to markedly affect GM's bottom line," Nerad said. "It could be enough to help a company redefine itself. Beyond sales, look what Prius has done for Toyota."
Nerad said what GM really needs are some hit conventionally powered products.
Phillippi concurred, saying that "the Volt is obviously going to be expensive. It's going to entail a lot of new-applied technology. It's not going to be an economy car."