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Detroit Auto Show: GMC Granite Concept Doesn't Fit the Brand

DETROIT -- The GMC Granite crossover concept car prompted a lot of "uh-ohs" at the Detroit auto show, because it doesn't look like it belongs in the GMC lineup of big pickups and SUVs.

Assuming the Granite makes it into production - and for budget reasons, most quote-unquote "concept cars" do nowadays -- that makes it look like parent General Motors is still up to its old habit of whittling square pegs and hammering them into round holes.

GM Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre took credit for killing a Buick crossover that didn't fit the brand, yet somehow the GMC Granite concept appears to have made the cut.

Could it be that four brands are still too many for GM? GM is dropping Hummer, Saab, Pontiac and Saturn. In bankruptcy restructuring, GM hung onto GMC, Buick, Chevrolet and Cadillac.

The truck-only GMC brand is the odd man out of the group, precisely because its image is synonymous with big pickups and SUVs, at a time when big pickups and SUVs are out of fashion. Analysts saw GMC's survival as evidence that GM just couldn't pass up the profits it earns on what big trucks it still sells.

GMC's advertising tag line is "Professional Grade." The line has been used successfully to market GMC to families that don't really need all that capability, but if GMCs are tough enough for contractors and construction sites, they're tough enough for families.

The positioning still works, even if casual buyers quit buying big pickups and SUVs, because professionals who really need them are still in the market.

So what to make of the crossover GMC Granite, which is sort of in between a minivan, and a station wagon?

GM has a long history of selling the same vehicle at different brands, whether or not the vehicle fits the brand. That helped kill Pontiac. Pontiac was supposed to be the "excitement" brand, yet GM stuck it with rebadged and slightly restyled minivans and econoboxes.

Even GM sounds confused about GMC's future brand positioning. "Our premium trucks will continue to be a core offering," said Dave Lyon, executive director of Buick and GMC, in a Jan. 11 press conference.

I guess that makes the Granite a "non-core" offering. Yet concentrating on what you do best and shedding "non-core" assets is supposedly a big aspect of bankruptcy restructuring for GM and Chrysler. Even though it avoided bankruptcy, Ford has also gone to great lengths to pare itself down, shedding Volvo, Jaguar and Aston Martin.

GM should be simplifying its brand positioning, instead of muddying the waters.