Wondering why General Motors went bankrupt and needed a taxpayer bailout? Just consider the Chevrolet Cobalt. Introduced in 2004 as the vehicle that would finally make GM’s small cars competitive with those from Japan, the Cobalt’s mediocre performance translated into, at best, so-so sales.
Beneath its shiny surface, the product was even worse than the motoring public realized. For all the money and public-relations puffery GM poured into the Cobalt’s launch, the company apparently couldn’t be bothered with such details as a properly working ignition switch. Instead, it settled for parts that occasionally caused the car to shut off while in motion, disabling both the power steering and air bags. This failing has been linked to multiple accidents and 12 deaths. Despite ample warnings from inside the company and many consumer complaints, GM swept the problem under the rug, until now. Far too late, it has recalled 2.6 million vehicles that may contain the potentially deadly defect.
For GM, still struggling to shake off the “Government Motors” stigma, the fiasco is a reminder that, despite much progress, its renaissance is incomplete. The public cannot be sure that taxpayer money bought a truly new GM unless and until new chief executive Mary Barra — herself a GM “lifer” — eradicates all vestiges of the buck-passing management culture that produced the Cobalt. Ms. Barra must use her testimony before Congress on Tuesday to demonstrate credibly that she is on top of the company’s quality problems, past and, more important, future. In that sense, GM’s fresh recall of certain Chevy Cruze models is a mixed blessing: The company is taking action, but the Cruze is GM’s small-car successor to the Cobalt.
There are lessons here for government as well. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration received indications of a problem with the Cobalt in 2007 and again in 2010 but took no action. Congress needs to know why.