General Motors should stop trying to please everybody. It's a strategy that embraces the lowest common denominator. It's hard to make a favorable impression when your primary objective is to avoid offending as many people as possible. You wind up pleasing no one, or next to no one, or so it seems. You are relegated to second-class status. Or worse, you are forgotten.
That much became clear to me after a week in the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt SS coupe, a member of a car line often overlooked or treated as pedestrian fare by the automotive media.
I did a little experiment. I called Chevrolet and asked if I could "have a look at the Cobalt." I deliberately did not specify a model -- LS, LT, SS, coupe or sedan. My reasoning was that only one of those Cobalt models, the SS coupe, was strong enough, different enough to engage my interest for a week.
As I suspected it would do, without any prompting from me, Chevrolet shipped the fully loaded Cobalt SS coupe.
That told me that the Cobalt SS was the car that Chevrolet regarded as the real Cobalt, the one the company regarded as the most representative of that compact economy car line. That being the case, I wondered why the company wasted so much time, money and marketing muscle pushing lesser Cobalts -- disparagingly regarded as "rental cars" by the automotive media.
No one regards the comparable Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, or Toyota Corolla as a "rental car," although all of those models can be found on somebody's rental car lot. A Civic is a Civic. An Elantra is an Elantra. A Corolla is a Corolla. All are compact economy cars with good road manners and excellent quality. Their reputations are so strong, their names speak for themselves.
That's not so with the Cobalt, the fifth best-selling compact car in America. Why is that?
I suspect it's because of GM's dedication to the lowest common denominator -- the company's tendency to take a good idea, such as the Cobalt, and dilute it as much as possible in pursuit of maximum affordability.
The end result is a line of cheap, forgettable cars. That's too bad because as demonstrated by the tested SS, the Cobalt is so much better than that.
And I can't help but think that the Cobalt would be even better had GM not squandered money and reputation spreading the car's value over a broad field of less-than-impressive materials and mediocre performance in pursuit of more sales.
GM needs to abandon that practice, even if it means losing aggregate sales. It should consider trading volume for memorability, which could lead to an increase in higher quality sales -- cars and trucks sought by consumers more for likeability than price.
I was amazed by the number of people who were amazed by the Chevrolet Cobalt I showed them. The car had a snazzy but comfortable interior. Its five-speed manual shifter fell easily to hand. Clutch and gear movement were smooth, predictable. And with its 2-liter, turbocharged, inline four-cylinder engine capable of developing 260 horsepower, the Cobalt SS was downright zippy.
I spoke with several people who had encountered lesser Cobalts in rental fleets. To a person, they said they were disappointed and would never have considered buying a Cobalt, or anything else from Chevrolet, based on that experience.
But they all said they would strongly consider buying the Cobalt SS, although it comes with two fewer doors and a substantially higher price than the workaday Cobalt sedans flooding the rental fleets.
"I don't get it," said a Virginia friend after taking a spin in the Cobalt SS. His first experience with the Cobalt was via a car rental agency in South Carolina.
That rented Cobalt was so ordinary, "it was depressing," he said. But the Cobalt SS was "a boss little car, something I could see myself owning," he said.
"I don't get it," my friend said. "Why doesn't GM put this one [the Cobalt SS] in the rental fleets. It's like GM wants us to have a bad impression of its products. That doesn't make sense."
ON WHEELS WITH WARREN BROWN Listen from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays on WMET World Radio (1160 AM) or http://www.wmet1160.com.