In the first part of this series, I covered GM’s history during the Malaise Era. In Part 2, I covered its partial recovery in the 80s, followed by stagnation and complacency in the 90s. Now, I’m going to bring the story to present and explain how this sets GM up for failure with EVs.
The Continued Slide Into Front-Drive Hell
In the late 00s, Bob Lutz tried to bring GM’s cars back from boringland. Electronic stability control and other advancements mostly negated the foul weather advantages that front-drive vehicles had (which is really their only advantage). GM produced a few models based on Australian designs, like the Chevrolet SS and Pontiac GTO. There were also two compact sports cars with rear-wheel drive, the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. After a few short years and GM’s bankruptcy, GM discontinued all of these vehicles.
To GM’s credit, it brought back the Camaro and kept the Corvette, but everything else but the largest SUVs like the Suburban, Tahoe, and Escalade (and the trucks they’re based on) has since gone front-drive. The last GM I owned, a Chevrolet TrailBlazer, was discontinued and later replaced with a front-drive crossover called the Blazer, but it has almost nothing in common with older Blazers.
As an enthusiast, I’m not interested in purchasing a vehicle that’s basically a minivan without sliding doors. Other customers are somehow happy with these vehicles (because they don’t know much about them), and GM’s quality, while not perfect, is becoming competitive with imports again.
Despite my distaste for it, it makes sense for gas-powered vehicles that won’t be used for serious towing or off-road duty to be front-drive in many ways. They can be made lighter, have more interior room, and better fuel economy than a similarly sized body-on-frame longitudinal vehicle. Putting the motor and transaxle in the back like a Fiero is also out of the question in most cases because people expect cargo and passenger room in the area around the rear wheel wells.
I’m still not buying a front-drive crossover, though. While not frequent, I do want to occasionally tow and will eventually be buying a camper to tow more frequently. I also just don’t like the feel of front drive in general daily driving. The relatively minor drawbacks of body-on-frame rear-drive are something I’d be willing to live with to get the extra capability.
But what if we could have our cake and eat it, too? There’s actually a way to get the advantages of front-drive while still getting rear-drive and the advantages that come with it. It’s something Tesla is doing and GM is not.
GM Set Itself Up For EV Failure
Tesla has never built a front-wheel drive vehicle, nor should it. Electronic stability control takes care of nearly all of the foul-weather advantages that front-drive vehicles have over rear-drive, but a battery EV negates them even further because the bulk of the vehicle’s weight no longer sits over the front wheels. For a vehicle like the Model S, with a large battery pack centered under the vehicle, there are only drawbacks to front-drive.
Legacy Auto is building front-drive EVs, though. There are a variety of reasons, but the biggest ones are bureaucratic inertia and bean counting. Instead of coming up with a high-performance clean-sheet EV design, GM elected to save costs by starting out with an existing car design for every EV they’ve built so far. Because GM has basically sold its soul to the FWD devil in recent decades, that’s where it ended up.
The EV-1 was based on a vehicle with a transverse engine like a front-drive car, but placed in the back. Instead of placing the bulk of the battery pack over the drive wheels, they borrowed from the inferior Saturn designs of the day and made the vehicle front-drive with batteries behind the driver. The worst of both worlds was achieved.
For the Volt, it did something similar. The company started with the Chevy Cruze platform, and placed the battery pack in the center of the car down relatively low (a good move), but couldn’t be bothered to drive the rear wheels because they were using an ICE to extend the vehicle’s range.
For the Spark EV and Bolt EV, it did similar. Battery pack placement was a little better than the Volt, but the company started out with Korean designs that came from Daewoo Motors when they bought it out in 2001. Since then, the designs of both companies, with front-drive vehicles, mixed to become today’s GM Korea. Vehicles like the Chevy Aveo, Spark, and Sonic are the legacy of the buyout. Once again, GM chose to keep the basic layout of the Spark and Sonic when it built the Spark EV and later the Bolt EV.
None of these vehicles take full advantage of what a company can do with the flexibility an EV gives designers. GM cheaped out and basically made a gas car conversion that not only is front drive, but doesn’t have the bulk of the weight over the drive wheels like a gas car. The result? Lots and lots of wheel spin if you stomp on it, and some drivers on forums have had trouble with winter driving (snow tires are generally a good idea if you live places where it snows).
Chevy continues this way of doing things with the upcoming Bolt EUV. It’s going to be bigger and more SUV-like than the regular Bolt, but will have the same underpinnings. No all-wheel-drive will be available (at least at launch — maybe it will change its mind later) and the same disadvantages will continue with that model. Add to this the slow 55 kW charge rate, and the vehicle is really a big disappointment.
Will It Stop Building Front-Drive Junk? Probably Not.
Looking at future GM EVs does give more hope. The upcoming Hummer EV and Cadillac Lyriq EV are both designed with a skateboard architecture and won’t come as front-drive vehicles. Future Ultium vehicles will be available as front, rear, or all-wheel-drive, though. GM does seem to intend to build front-drive EVs in the future.
Really, there’s no reason to do so. Low-slung batteries don’t place weight over the front wheels like in an ICE car, and the oversteer issue for rear-drive vehicles is mostly taken care of with modern traction control systems. There’s no cost savings to driving the front wheels in a skateboard EV. The only reason the company would choose to build a front-drive EV on a skateboard platform is tradition, and in this case, it’s a tradition borne out of compromise during the nadir of the ICE age.
Is GM really that stupid?
Featured image: The Bolt EUV and Bolt EV, photo by Chevrolet.
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