Fixing GM is an Escalade-sized job

First, the good news about General Motors. Though the company did lose more than $500 million in the first quarter, its losses are half what they were a year ago. Its European operations are starting to make money. There are even some good sign in the home market, where most of its financial troubles are coming from.

Some new GM vehicles, like the Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade large suvs are doing very well. Dealers say they’re hot sellers and buyers are paying as much as $7,000 more per vehicle than they did for the old utes. The Hummer H3 is also a hit.

The bad news is that GM still has many of the same problems that pushed the company into the mess it is now trying to escape. The first-quarter improvements came in large part from a $3 billion jump in revenue in North America. GM Vice Chairman and CFO Frederick A. “Fritz” Henderson says about one-third of that jump came from the new suvs.

With gasoline prices headed toward $3 a gallon, sales of big suvs are threatened just like they were a year ago. Sure, GM has the best and newest full-size suvs on the market. That helps them protect or even improve its two-third stake in a profitable business. But it’s a shrinking business. GM’s lifeline is still exposed to fuel prices—something which is well beyond management’s control. Henderson says in GM’s car business, many buyers are switching from V-6 engines to thriftier 4-cylinder motors. That’s proof that gas prices do affect buyers.

The only way for GM to hedge against gas prices is to sell more crossover suvs—which is where the real action is these days—and cars. GM does have crossovers coming soon, but none of them are mid-sized car-based suvs like the Toyota Highlander or Mazda CX-9.

And its car portfolio? The Buick Lucerne and Chevy Impala are quite nice, as is the soon-to-be-launched Saturn Aura. The problem there is that none of those vehicles—while competitive—are seen as best in class. The brands that sell them have image problems and GM doesn’t have the marketing cash to support all eight of its divisions. Saturn dealers in the coastal markets—where imports dominate—complain of being shouted out by foreign brands because they don’t have enough cash or advertising to cut through the noise made by the competition. One GM exec conceded to me a few weeks ago that, “when you have 56 children, you can’t care for all of them.”

Yep. Wrap all of this together and GM is still laboring with a lot of the same ‘ole problems. The company relies too much on gas hogs. It can’t support its bloated family of brands. And the imports still have more to offer when it comes to cars and crossover suvs. Until GM licks those issues, its recovery will be a long slog.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.