3 questions for GM's product chief

January 10, 2012 - 5:20 PM
Detroit Auto Show Cadillac

General Motors North American Vice President Mark Reuss debuts the 2013 Cadillac ATS prior to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

DETROIT (AP) — One poorly-placed dashboard button is all it takes to lower a car's reputation for quality.

Mary Barra, head of GM product development and a 30-year company veteran, knows this well. Her job is to roll out cars and trucks faster while boosting quality. And if a stereo button or vent switch is hard for drivers to reach, it can hurt a car's quality scores in publications such as Consumer Reports.

Barra, who took the top product job a year ago, wants to end those mistakes. She also wants GM to compete better in the small-luxury-car market. And she wants to stop last-minute production changes that can lead to quality problems down the road. It's tough job, though. She oversees 36,000 people across the globe, including engineers and designers.

Barra, 50, discussed these and other topics with The Associated Press in an interview at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

— Favorite Car She Helped Develop: Cadillac ATS, a small sedan aimed at demanding luxury buyers. It's due out late this summer. The price was not announced but it could cost around $34,000. She's driven the car several times as it's gone through development. The sleek sedan looks like a small version of Caddy's CTS midsize sports sedan, a big hit.

"It really represents what our engineering team is capable of doing, starting with the gorgeous design," she said. "I know it's going to deliver."

Luxury sales grew much slower than those of the overall industry last year. But carmakers like GM hope an improving economy will change that and are rolling out plenty of less expensive, small luxury sedans at the auto show in Detroit.

The ATS targets the perennial leader in small luxury sedans, the BMW 3-Series. "It's going to compete head-on," Barra says.

— Biggest Accomplishment: Building a team that's doing great work, Barra says. Under her watch, some high-profile cars are being launched. They include the new Malibu sedan, the Chevrolet Sonic compact, the Buick Verano small luxury sedan, as well as an upcoming new pickup truck and the ATS.

"Those are something that we're all proud of. That's really where the rubber meets the road, getting a great product out there."

— Biggest Challenge: Raising quality and boosting scores in Consumer Reports' annual vehicle reliability survey. Last year, GM's brands either stayed flat or fell in the rankings of 28 mainstream brands sold in the U.S. Chevrolet stayed flat at 17th; GMC fell one spot to 22nd; Buick dropped six slots to 24th; and Cadillac fell six notches to 25th.

Barra is working with quality executives, designers and engineers to try and turn things around. "Fundamentally we need to do better," she says.

Barra wants to get rid of last-minute changes to vehicles before production that can cause quality problems, and she also promises to make sure buttons and switches are easy for people to figure out. Often carmakers get dinged on quality scores because of poor placement of buttons and switches that control climate, radios and other items.

"There might be nothing wrong with this dial, but if the dial's not in the right place or the button's not in the right place," the ranking falls, Barra says.

"It's attention to detail," she says.