May 13, 2010 at 2:37 pm

GM officials take time to Cruze

Execs test-drive new cars and the competition, offer candid evaluations

Tom Stephens, GM vice chairman of global product operations, shares his opinion Wednesday after driving the 2011 Chevy Cruze in Chelsea. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

After test driving the Chevrolet Cruze and other promising vehicles in recent weeks, General Motors Co. executives Wednesday predicted a continued rise in sales for the troubled automaker.

"We expect to increase our sales next month and the month after that," said Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America, after tooling around in the Cruze outside of Ann Arbor. "We can't control how many vehicles the market sells, but we can continue to sell more cars."

Reuss and other top executives meet weekly outside Ann Arbor for what they call Knothole Rides. They test drive new GM vehicles and their competition and then offer frank assessments to vehicle line executives and chief engineers.

These rides -- and their critiques -- have become even more important as GM prepares to launch a series of essential vehicles in the coming months.

"They have all got to be home runs," said Tom Stephens, GM's vice chairman, global product operations. "And we're going to keep enhancing these vehicles through their life cycle. You should see some of the improvements we'll have for (the Cruze) for 2013."

GM will roll out new heavy-duty trucks and will launch the midsize Buick Regal and compact Chevrolet Cruze, both vehicles that could help re-establish the automaker known for trucks and SUVs as a carmaker.

In November comes the long-awaited electric Chevrolet Volt with a range-extending gas engine, which Stephens called GM's "highest-profile launch of the year."

But on Wednesday, executives were focused on the Cruze, a compact car that arrives in dealerships in September and is designed to outperform the top-selling Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

"We have never really built good small cars," Reuss said. "But we are now."

Gary Altman, Cruze chief engineer, said the discussions at these rides are frank and sincere.

"If there is something wrong, they'll let you know, and you fix it right away," Altman said.

While driving a Cobalt, Karl Stracke, vice president of global vehicle engineering, was blunt: "Look at this car, it's horrible. How did this get through so many people."

But such candid evaluations have helped the automaker develop new entries -- the Chevrolet Malibu, Buick LaCrosse and Chevrolet Equinox, all of which have been critically acclaimed and well received by consumers.

"The mission is simple and clear: design, build and sell the very best," said Terry Woychowski, vice president, global vehicle program management.

The group is even willing to take advice from outside sources. On a previous Cruze drive, Woychowski called his 17-year-old daughter to meet him and offer advice.

"She had lots of great insight," he said. "I need her, and here she was teaching me things about the car."

While flying down a bumpy road in a Cruze, Sheri Hickok, director of global noise and vibration, purposely hit as many bumps as possible to listen to any noise infiltrating the cabin.

"You can have two vehicles that ride exactly the same, but if one has a solid sound and the other one has high-pitched squeaks and rattles, people will think the quieter car has a better ride," she said.

"I'm very pleased with the improvements since the last drive. There were some wind noise issues that seem to have been fixed."

The final of four test drives during the development of new vehicles comes as the cars are ready for dealerships.

The group is keenly aware that every auto manufacturer will continue to improve their small cars. While the Honda Civic is the benchmark GM wants to pass, it knows Honda will bring out a new Civic as early as next year as a 2012 model.

While looking over his notes, Stephens said the Cruze's ride and handling bettered the current Civic.

But Reuss, standing nearby, noted, "We've got to beat the next generation."

GM's top executives compare the 2011 Chevy Cruze with a Honda Civic ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)