What went wrong for Chevrolet?

Just under ten years ago General Motors announced that they were bringing Chevrolet to Europe and the car geek inside me got quite excited. Chevrolet was an iconic American brand. Even people who knew little about cars had at least heard of Corvette and Camaro, while plenty had fond thoughts about names such as Bel-Air and Impala.

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They may have been fitted with hideously uneconomical V8 engines, wallowed around corners like a duck on a skateboard and had build quality issues that saw panel gaps wider than the Severn estuary, but there was nothing that couldn’t be fixed for Europe.

The Malibu, for example, was based on the same underpinnings as the Vauxhall Vectra, so there was no reason why a sensible diesel engine couldn’t be fitted, along with some European friendly suspension, while retaining that very American image.

Likewise, the Cobalt would have provided a sporty compact coupe that was cheap to produce and sell, appealing to those young families that might still want a bit of overt sportiness to their cars before finally succumbing to life with MPVs and sensible amounts of boot space.

Instead General Motors eschewed everything that was uniquely American about the brand. The glitz was gone and the brashness was banished, and what was left was uninspiring.

Chevrolet Matiz 2006 FrontRather than bring the US metal over to the UK, they decided to simply rebadged the cars built by another dying GM brand, Daewoo. That meant we saw dreadful cars such as the Daewoo Matiz remodelled and put on sale as a Chevrolet Matiz.

And when I say remodelled, I really mean that they prised the Daewoo badge off the front and simply bolted on a Chevrolet one in its place.

General Motors has not hidden from the fact that badge engineering was partly responsible for its near bankruptcy and multi-billion dollar bail out by the US government, but this was the most obvious, most cynical badge engineering project yet.

I could get over the fact that they came here offering something different. Korean built cars with Chevrolet badges on could carve out a niche, and the promise was there that the Daewoo cars would soon be replaced with true Chevrolet products.

Soon enough new products, still designed and built in Korea, started coming through. Cars like the forgettable Cruze and the anonymous Spark offered bread and butter motoring, but not much more. Average cars at average prices.

Chevrolet Cruze LTZ Executive 2012 Front

Unfortunately for Chevrolet, the likes of Hyundai and Kia, their most direct competitors, weren’t going to stand still. Quality was upped, top designers were brought in, and desirability has started to come through, with cars such as the Kia pro_cee’d and Hyundai i10 being mentioned alongside the best in class cars.

While this happened, Chevrolet did nothing but continue to churn out average cars at average prices. Recently they’ve even started on the badge engineering path again, with the Chevrolet Trax being a less convincing version of Vauxhall’s Mokka, while the Captiva is a lightly modified Vauxhall Antara.

To make matters even worse, Chevrolet continue to confuse the market. At the Frankfurt motor show their stand was dominated by an enormous platform housing just the Corvette and Camaro, both authentically American.

Frankfurt IAA 2013 Chevrolet

More ‘vette and Camaro models littered the floor, almost hiding from view the range of ordinary metal that customers might actually buy.

The public had no idea if Chevrolet was a truly American brand selling high-powered sports cars at huge expense, or it is was a low-end Korean manufacturer of low-end tin boxes with wheels. Truth be told, I’m not sure many within Chevrolet really knew.

With GM losing somewhere in the region of £1.2 billion (yes, that’s BILLION) in Europe last year, and billions for years before that, something finally had to be done.

Selling Vauxhall/Opel was tried in 2009 but failed for various reasons. Had they succeeded, then Chevrolet would now be GM’s focus in Europe, but with that failure they were left with one volume brand too many.

Sorting out some kind of production partnership with PSA was always a possibility, but that’s a tricky thing to resolve politically, and these pairings don’t always produce the savings hoped for. Shutting Vauxhall/Opel down entirely would stem the losses, but would be incredibly messy and drawn out, possibly costing more than keeping cars in production.

The only option left for the bigger part of the equation is to get control of manufacturing costs and spend some time and, more importantly, money on producing the right product with the right image. Hiring the entire VW marketing team would be a good start.

For Chevrolet, there was only one route to take. The brand will be laid to rest by the end of 2015, leaving the market to Kia and friends.

Of course, there’s always one final twist to a story like this. Chevrolet will remain in Europe after all, but selling only the Corvette and Camaro. True American cars with a true American heritage.

The door has been left open…

[button link=”http://www.contracthireandleasing.com/car-leasing-news/what-went-wrong-for-chevrolet/” rel=”nofollow” color=”orange”]This article was first published at ContractHireAndLeasing.com on 11 December 2013.[/button]

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.