Texas®

Earlier this year as the first 2011 Chevy Suburban’s started rolling down the Arlington, Texas’ General Motors Assembly line, Any Driven Sunday had the chance to sit down with one of the big kahuna’s at the helm of “The New GM” to talk about the longest lasting line of vehicles in the market and the future of GM.

As Global Vice President responsible for Chevrolet’s Domestic Sales and Service in the United States, Allan Batey has quite a daunting task most brave souls would run from as GM has gone through government supervised bankruptcy and Batey is partially responsible for billions of dollars of public bailout money. He and the company are also under the magnifying glass of the press and every politician trying to make a brownie point with frustrated voters.

“Really, it is a great time to have this job,” Batey says with his working class English roots showing in his accent and scrappy attitude, “We have a product line that is better than it has ever been in the history of this company. The reality is, it is a far better product than most people think it is. That is a great thing, now we have to get some seats in our seats to prove it.”

Batey started in the Global GM world with England’s Vauxhall, then. as one of many executives being groomed for higher places, he was sent in to Germany’s Opel operations eventually living and working in seven countries and earning a reputation as a man who can handle complex problems.

Bringing a company through restructuring and out of bankruptcy is no small task, but Batey has a unique bit of experience on his resume. Back in the 90s he was part of the team working for GM Asia dealing with the purchase of the then bankrupt Daewoo Motor Company in Korea.

Daewoo was once the value leader, darling of the super hot South Asian market, but like cross-town rival Kia, Daewood was decimated by dealings with Tommy Suharto, the son of the onetime Indonesian strongman. Tommy was largely responsible as the straw that broke the Asian economy’s back, plunging Korea’s small car rivals both into a death spiral. Kia ended up being folded into Hyundai and Daewoo became one of the asset rich prizes being pursued by both Ford and GM. GM won and Batey was part of the team tasked with sorting out the collected mess.

“Daewoo was a very unique challenge,’ explains Batey, “We had to be exceptionally careful of which assets we took on. The company had a global influence and has become the basis of many of our best selling cars throughout Asia and in particular in china where we sell a number of cars based out of the Daewoo operations.”

The reason Batey was in Dallas was the launch of the 2011 Chevrolet Suburban and he brought along a couple of things. One was a 1935 Chevrolet Suburban Carryall wagon the other was multiple NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion, Jimmy Johnson.

While most of the local media was clamoring for Johnson’s attention, Alan Batey sat down with Any Driven Sunday to talk about the bumpy road GM has endured and the tremendous opportunities the New GM had in front of it.

Even after emerging from bankruptcy GM is still one of the largest corporate entities in the world with global commitments and challenges.

The Suburban is very much the ideal vehicle to illustrate one of the more complex challenges ahead. It is the big boy on the street both figuratively and literally defining the Super Sized SUV market that grew up around it and siblings Tahoe, Yukon, Denali and Escalade. All are built in Arlington Texas, at a plant that has had to compete with other plants across the country to hold on to production and the millions of dollars of primary, secondary and tertiary jobs associated with it.

Dodge never really entered the Premium super sized SUV market and Ford all but abandoned it when they killed the Excursion leaving the Suburban alone with a 75 year heritage and a reputation for being one of the rally flags of conspicuous consumption uniting the environmental movement of all things wrong with the world.

The newest Suburban’s are still larger than most Manhattan apartments but are now available with “Flex Fuel” technology and most importantly 2-mode Hybrid options. These options make a huge difference in the “Carbon Footprint” of a vehicle that has become not just the choice of families but also has become a commercial staple.

In movies and in reality the altered Suburban chassis is probably the most modified vehicle in service today. Thousands of “Civilian Contractors” Secret Service and military operators have been driving Armored Surburbans in some of the harshest places for vehicles and human cargo. The big truck frame and heavy-duty construction are modified by companies like San Antonio’s Texas Armoring Corporation (www.texasarmoring.com) for use in Iraq, Afghanistan and other dangerous places around the world.

GM has a unique struggle on its hands trying to reintroduce and in some cases introduce its product line to a consumer who for years has a preconception of what the General is. Prior to the bailout, Bankruptcy and restructuring Federal Auto Czar Steve Rattner’s assessment of the company was right on the money when he said on PBS’s Charlie Rose show, “It has a product line that is far better than anyone knew it was and a corporate culture that was simply the most dysfunctional thing I have ever seen.”

Even before the removal of Rick Waggoner as CEO, the shift to change that corporate culture had begun.

At the same time as GM tries to get people to try their product, which really is equal to the challenge, they can’t completely walk away from their heritage. Over 100 years of car building creates some great linage but more than a few black eyes to go with it. GM is trying to capture the good, like the new Corvette Grand Sport’s homage to the glory days of racing, and hope people can forget the lost generations of the 70’s 80’s and 90’s dreadful designs (Aztek) and monumental build quality and labor issues of the Roger Smith era.

The Suburban is one of those vehicles that came out of the mess GM brought upon itself stronger than you might think. Sitting alone in the market with a restructured and reenergized corporation behind it the GMC/Chevy product line is positioned to win back customers who seem willing and hopeful the General really is better.

There are very few vehicles out there that I would rather take, along with all my possessions for an extended voyage. The Suburban’s long wheelbase, solid frame, and seamless transmission make the journey effortless as long as you have the resources to stomach the 14/19 MPG. Dropping $5 in the gas tank is like spitting in a swimming pool and coming up to the cash register at $60,500.00 it is not a lightweight in price or 5835 pound curb weight.

“People who are in the car business want to build great cars, that is why you are in the business. I’m a third generation guy and I am in the car business because I love it,” Batey enthusiastically points out the challenges are great but at a time where the product is so strong he knows the New GM will rise from the last year much stronger, “The one thing that will trip us up is if we somehow become complacent and start to believe our own press and our own propaganda. We absolutely have to keep pushing forward, get results on the board, and get results that do not have to be explained. If we do that the brand will move very fast.”

It will be interesting to see if GM can follow through and continue to develop this new found entrepreneurial spirit into lasting success. Scrappy, experienced executives like Batey seem ready for the fight and the challenge of making a truly massive global company act like a small responsive underdog.

The midsized SUV market is kind of like the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears. Some are too big, some too small and others are just right.

The 4Runner is a nice throwback to the time when, in order to qualify to be called a SUV, you started with a truck frame and built a four-door wagon-like body on top. This means the 4runner has a slightly less lush ride than, oh say, a Lexus RX 470, car chassis, but with a nicely proportioned wheel base considerably more livable than a Jeep Wrangler, a true SUV.

I make this distinction for a reason, a car-based wagon does not have the ability to carry cargo, go off road or pull a trailer the way a properly framed truck can. It is really easy to understand how, lacking a foundation of a frame, the welded together bits flex too much and simply have less ability over all. The market has created SUV’s Crossovers, Sport Activity Vehicles and basically any variety of names and initials to hide the fact that they really are being used as tall station wagons.

The size of the 2011 4Runner has grown, mostly because of customer demands for third row seating and more head room. The last generation SR5 was, in my mind just about the perfect combination of utility, sport, and overall quality that has inspired me to try and purchase a used 4Runner on three separate occasions. The only problem was trying unsuccessfully to liberate them from their existing owners for a reasonable price.

The 4Runner has suffered a little from market demands where the Need/Want ratio means the core SUV buyer tries to use it as a minivan, drive it like a car, and pull like a truck. It is an interesting result as you see different ratio’s of car/truck/van coming out in multiple vehicles from the same brand. In Toyota’s case they have the Rav4, Highlander, Sequoia, 4Runner, FJ and Land Cruiser taking swipes at the ratio and Camry based Crossovers parsing the market even further.

The 4Runner name plate has been around since its introduction in 1984 when it became one of the first mass market Japanese SUVs alongside cross town rival Nissan’s Pathfinder and has earned a very loyal following. In its 5th generation first introduced in 2009 it has crept into the large part of the midsized market and have pushed total sales of all generation of 4Runner close to, if not exceeding 1 million units.

For my money, the 4Runner has just about the right mix and with a base just under $28k for a well appointed SR5 and an “As Tested” price on our “Limited” with all the bells and whistles hitting $37,800.00 it sits right in the meat of the market.

There are some features on this SUV that are simply smart, it has a parking assist camera mounted near the rear giving a full view when in reverse and it displays (smart) in the center rear view mirror.

Leather seating and steering wheel covers are flawless and comfortable, the layout has the fit and finish we all have come to know as a hallmark for Toyota, again flawless. The small V8 under the hood sports 270 hp, is quiet and smooth and we found the expected 22 MPG highway was actually a pretty accurate measurement of fuel economy.

There are lots of vehicles in the overlapping segments serviced by the 4Runner each takes the recipe for S(sport)-U(utility)-and-V(vehicle) and blends a different end result. Toyota pushed the 4Runners size to Large but it still has that medium feel.

It works for me, and I will buy one.