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Published: Saturday, 6/10/2006

Wake-up call for GM

IT'S a safe bet that General Motors' favorite newspaper is not the New York Times. First Thomas Friedman, perhaps the nation's most distinguished foreign correspondent, startled Detroit by writing in a May 31 column that the best thing for the nation would be to have General Motors taken over by Toyota.

He was peeved because GM, in an effort to entice California and Florida buyers to go for some of its "gas-guzzling dinosaurs," was offering to subsidize the cost of fuel for the first year, which he believes will only increase our dependence on foreign oil.

If that weren't bad enough, days later the Times' veteran auto writer, Michelene Maynard, weighed in with a devastating front-page story on the Chevrolet Impala, the best-selling model any Detroit automaker produces these days.

Nice car, the experts agreed, until it is measured against Toyota's Camry or Honda's Accord, which are comparably priced and outselling their U.S. competition.

Independent observers agreed that the Impala couldn't measure up. Seems General Motors is trying to make too many different models, and hence can't give any of them the engineering or marketing attention that the Japanese automakers lavish on their models.

Worse, over a four-year span, owning a similarly priced car will cost the Chevy owner some $4,200 more. Why? American cars still break down more easily, and do not hold their value as well. The clear implication of both stories seemed to be: Stick a fork in Detroit, boys. The American auto industry is done. Or will be, if drastic steps aren't taken soon.

Most dismaying of all was the reaction from supporters of General Motors, who responded by savagely and personally attacking Mr. Friedman, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes. There wasn't much said about the second story about the Impala, however. The reporter had the facts, figures, and quotes to back up what she said. So what does that mean for GM, a company that lost $10 billion last year?

That's not clear, but we know what should have happened. Every engineer and manager should find a copy of both pieces on his or her desk, together with a note from GM CEO Richard Wagoner. "Too much in these stories is true," it should say. "What are we going to do about it?"

After all, you can only lose $10 billion a year for so long before you're running on empty.

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