Jack Roberts

A leaner, meaner GM

JackGreener products helping company bounce back

A year ago, General Motors was staring down the barrel of a gun. The company, deemed “too big to fail” by media pundits, was bankrupt. Without a government bailout, it seemed this automotive powerhouse, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2008, might live only a couple of years into its second century.

Today, the mood at GM is decidedly more upbeat. At a recent Fleet and Commercial Press Event in Detroit, Mark Reuss, GM North American president, noted the vast array of changes that have taken place since the company found itself on the ropes, with vehicle sales up 31 percent through April of this year compared to the year-ago period.

But Reuss cautions that GM won’t be sitting back enjoying its resurrection. Instead, he says, the company will be celebrating “on the run” by working hard to “green up” its offering of fleet and commercial vehicles, including an increased emphasis on compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid propane gas (LPG) technologies. And although GM has yet to offer a fully-electric car or delivery truck as has competitors Ford, Nissan and International, Reuss touts its forthcoming Chevy Volt – a plug-in hybrid that uses a small gasoline engine to boost the main electric motor’s range – as a technology platform that could find its way into other applications.

Of more immediate concern to both CCJ readers and GM Commercial Fleet dealers is the company’s departure from the medium-duty market – most notably the production halt of the 4500 and 5500 TopKick and Kodiak truck lines. According to Reuss, the decision to cancel those models was a logical one because GM “didn’t do a good job managing that business.” Looking ahead, Reuss declines to say whether GM would re-enter the medium-duty market. “Never say ‘never,’ ” he says. “We would have to approach and manage it very differently than we did in the past.”

Dealers still want a vehicle to fill the medium-duty void.


Still, many GM dealers – particularly those engaged in fleet and commercial sales – are vocal in calling for what they term a “Black Hole Truck,” a vehicle to fill the perceived void left in GM’s lineup. But according to Bill Gibson, GM director of fleet and commercial sales, Chevrolet and GMC will bridge some of the gap by offering heavier-duty versions of their Silverado and Sierra pickup trucks. Specifically, Gibson notes that the 2011 Silverado HD and Sierra HD trucks will be stronger, heavier and more durable than previous models, with increased payload capacities (including 13 models capable of carrying more than 3,100 pounds) and more powerful 397 hp engines. Add to that an all-new fully boxed steel frame, heavier front axle, stiffer springs and a new independent front suspension, and Gibson says GM has a “heavy Class 3, or light Class 4” work truck that can handle a wide array of applications. This will include a new four-wheel-drive HD pickup that can accommodate a snowplow, a stronger transmission with a hill-start assist feature and towing capacities increased to 21,700 pounds.

The story is much the same for the Chevy Express and GMC Savana commercial delivery vans. Dedicated CNG and LPG versions will appear late this year, including a LPG cutaway version in 2011. And Gibson stresses that GM still offers customers the only diesel engine option in the commercial van market, with the 2011 6.6-liter Duramax diesel receiving a power boost up to 525 lb.-ft. of torque and B20 capability, all tied in with a new five-year 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

After a couple of days in Detroit, it’s easy to believe that GM has come back leaner and meaner than ever from its near-death experience. Competition in the North American light truck market is stiffer than ever, so the company still has a long way to go to return fully to its past glories. But its trucks and vans are state of the art, and it appears the company’s engineers are eager to tackle fuel economy and productivity concerns. GM’s headed in the right direction – and that’s a good thing for both the trucking industry and the country as whole. n

JACK ROBERTS is Executive Editor, Trucking of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail jroberts@ccjmagazine.com or call (205) 248-1358.