Starkman: This Bloomberg Auto Writer Is GM's Worst Nightmare

July 01, 2022, 12:10 AM

The writer is a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter. This column from his blog, Starkman Approved, is being republished with permission.

By Eric Starkman

Mary Barra

Mary Barra, chair and CEO of General Motors, no doubt is feeling the pressure these days. GM is late to the electric vehicle ball and has few offerings on the market. The one that’s readily available, the affordable Chevy Bolt EUV, is such a dud that GM was forced to cut the price by $6,000 because dealers couldn’t move the vehicle off their lots. Elon Musk and his acolytes regularly mock Barra on Twitter for her audacious claim that in a few years GM will be selling more electric vehicles than Tesla.

Closer to home, Ford CEO Jim Farley has Wall Street and the media jazzed with his EV offerings, including his Mexican-made Mustang Mach-E SUV and his F-150 Lightning pickup truck. Never mind that both vehicles have already been subjected to safety recalls; Farley is an affable guy and a salesman extraordinaire. Farley’s cousin was the beloved comedian Chris Farley, and his other cousin is Tripp Tracy, who played for the Philadelphia Flyers and is now a hockey TV and radio color commentator in North Carolina. Farley hosts a podcast on Spotify, so keeping people entertained also is part of his DNA.

Farley also works cheap, scrimping by on the $23 million in compensation he received last year. Barra received $29 million, a humbling comedown from the $40.3 million Automotive News said she earned in 2020. At some point GM shareholders will begin asking, “We are paying Barra this much why?” Wall Street’s two savviest investors, George Soros and David Tepper, recently dumped their GM holdings.

Barra desperately needed to create some buzz for her EV ambitions. GM recently hosted a bunch of auto writers to a shmoozefest in Park City, Utah to unveil its highly touted 2023 Cadillac Lyriq. In the old days, GM would reimburse trade and freelance journalists for their travel expenses to attend these sorts of sumptuous events, but I’m not certain that’s still the case. Let’s be charitable and assume that glowing reviews like this and this and this were unfettered by any financial influences or GM’s PR charmers.

Meet Bloomberg’s Hannah Elliott

Hannah Elliott (Photo: LinkedIn)

The only reviewer to give the Lyriq a hearty thumbs down was Bloomberg's Hannah Elliott, who under Bloomberg’s ethics rules no doubt was required to have her company pay her way. Elliott knows quite a bit about luxury cars and motorcycles, but she isn’t an auto writer per se.

“Most people at Bloomberg write about how to make money; I write about how to spend it,” Elliott told the specialty watch publication Hodinkee, where she was stylishly photographed wearing some very costly timepieces.

Elliott doesn’t like being played for a fool, so she was taken aback upon learning that the $62,990 Cadillac SUV that she was given to tool around in Utah was a work in progress, not Cadillac’s first customer-ready fully electric vehicle.

Here in Elliott’s words is why it was deceptive for GM to give auto reviewers a not yet ready for prime time vehicle.

(This) meant that any critique I might develop regarding (the Lyriq) could be swatted away with an airy ‘It’ll be fixed by the time we get to production’ comment from the folks selling it. This felt like a cop-out. Potential customers for this vehicle deserve to know what exactly they are getting into, not an approximation of something still to come.

Elliott appreciates the pressures facing Barra.

The thing is, Cadillac is doing everything it can to get people into the Lyriq — fast. And it’s not working.

Cadillac Lyriq (Photo: Nissangeniss)

In 2020, Cadillac announced it would push ahead Lyriq production by nine months. At the time, it seemed obvious that in order to keep up appearances, parent company General Motors needed to produce an EV more easily swallowed by the general populace than the planned $200,000-plus Hummer and some (still) forthcoming electric pickups. Rival Ford started selling the Mustang Mach-E EV SUV in late 2020, and started production on the F-150 Lightning pickup truck EV this spring.

Meanwhile, every other luxury brand from Audi and BMW to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche is already knee-deep in EVs.

Elliott was just getting warmed up. I can’t do justice paraphrasing her review, so here’s some more.

Maybe the Lyriq vehicles Cadillac sells next will have additional oomf. The one I drove lacked critical elements we have come to expect from even non-luxury vehicles: all-wheel-drive, heads-up display, and hands-free driving. At GM, hands-free is called “Super Cruise,” but in this car—as in early customer vehicles—it wasn’t functional. Customer cars will get Super Cruise as an over-the-air update later this year, a spokesperson said. The AWD system just wasn’t ready enough to put into cars, engineers told me. They already had the RWD system developed for the Hummer, so they used that one for Lyriq.

Cadillac doesn’t currently offer a company-official home-charging system; it says it will offer an Ultium-branded charger later this year. (Ultium is GM’s all-new battery system and platform. The company will spend $35 billion through 2025 to engineer it as a dedicated EV platform that can be calibrated to models across its lineup, from the Equinox to Hummer, which should help the automaker save money, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.) In the meantime, customers can buy a Clipper Creek home charging system through Cadillac to power the Lyriq. Prices on Clipper Creek’s website start around $350 and rise to more than $1,600.

The GPS and Navigation systems aren’t quite ready for prime time, either. In order to navigate a loop around the Park City area, I had to scan a QR code on my phone and then sync the phone to Bluetooth to use my own phone’s map that way. As I wound around near Wasatch Mountain State Park and circled sweeping vistas near Jordanelle State Park, I flipped through the map function on the dashboard just to see what would happen. While it did show accurate depictions of the road some of the time, most of the time I was in the car it showed a pixelated screen of gray.

All this will be ironed out by the time the next batch or so of customers take delivery, spokespeople told me. Quelle surprise.

Elliott had a few nice things to say about the Lyriq, but dismissed it as being a “capable, though not yet crave-able, SUV.

“Last I heard, GM said it wants to sell 400,000 EVs in North America by the end of 2023. At this rate, it’s going to have to move mountains to do it. Ski lodges included,” Elliott said.

Buying wool by the truckloads

One must imagine that GM’s purchasing folks buy wool by the truckload given the company’s history of pulling the material over reporters’ eyes.

In 1980 GM introduced its front-wheel-drive X-cars that also were supposed to be revolutionary, including the Chevy Citation. Auto writers gushed about the Citation, unaware that the ones GM gave them to test drive were specially modified versions of the car, in which the serious torque steer had been engineered out. The X-cars had a host of safety and other issues, and according to the publication HotCars, the manufacturing debacle nearly sunk the company.

As I recently noted, I was one of the hapless victims who was deceived by the Citation marketing hype, and I’ve doubted the company has changed that much in the intervening years. While Barra wasn’t responsible for the X-cars debacle and deceit, she was mentored by executives who were. Old habits die hard, particularly in a lumbering manufacturing company that in 2008 had a whirl through bankruptcy court.

Another day, another recall

My issue with electric vehicles is the accelerated speed the Biden administration wants to blow up a century old technology and its related ecosystems without much analysis, consideration, and planning.

The public doesn’t understand the administration’s end game. Biden’s vision is to make America dependent on foreign countries to mine the metals required to produce electric vehicles, so they suffer the consequences of the environment-destroying processes. China has a lock on these metals, but Biden is hoping to break that country’s control of the EV supply chain. China recently warned in a government-controlled publication that if Biden continues with his plans, he risks instigating World War III.

Building electric vehicles is considerably more complex than building the gas engine kind, and GM and Ford have yet to master the legacy technology. Consumer Reports ranks four GM vehicles on its list of the nine most unreliable SUVs and owners of Ford’s gas engine vehicles have been subjected to so many recalls their dealers might consider charging them rent.

It hardly inspires confidence that Ford’s electric Mustang, introduced in late 2020, has already been subject to six recalls, and the F-150 Lightning, which only came available in the spring, has been issued the first of what no doubt will be a litany of recalls given Ford’s history of building problem-plagued vehicles. Meanwhile, Toyota recalled its first electric vehicle because the wheels might possibly fall off.

The auto press would be wise to exercise some critical judgment and follow Hannah Elliott’s example. Mike Bloomberg’s billionaire friends are fortunate that he’s assigned an incredibly savvy reporter to advise them on how best to spend their money.

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