Saturn General manager Jill Lajdziak

Saturn general manager Jill Lajdziak's enthusiasm for her brand is infectious. And really, who can blame her? The charismatic and ebullient Ms. Lajdziak is at the helm of a brand that's critical to GM's product-based turnaround plan and which has seen its entire lineup overhauled over a very short timeframe. It's paying off, too. The day before we interviewed her, the Saturn Aura won the North American Car of the Year Award -- beating out both the Honda Fit and Toyota Camry. We aren't necessarily surprised about that -- we raved about the Aura XR that paid a visit to Autoblog Garage last year. Aura's just one part of the story, though.

It's joined by a compelling new crossover in Outlook, a legitimate halo car in the Sky, and will soon see the dated Vue replaced by a stylish replacement courtesy of sister brand Opel. To top it all off, next month in Chicago Jill will pull the wraps off the Saturn Astra hatchbacks. Saturn is a very serious player in multiple segments now, but Jill Lajdziak hasn't lost sight of the brand's roots, either. Read on as she tells us what it's like to oversee such a drastic brand reinvention and how she plans to carry Saturn's existing customers into the new era while winning over new converts who haven't perhaps considered the brand before.

The first question and answer can be found below. Follow the jump for the interview in its entirety.

Jill Lajdziak -- Division General Manager, Saturn
North American International Auto Show
January 8, 2007

Autoblog:
Obviously you won the North American Car of the Year award yesterday. Was it unexpected for you? How surprised were you to get that?

Jill Lajdziak: Well, you know what? Tough competition. And so to win versus two very key competitors in the marketplace, we couldn't be more honored. We weren't surprised -- we know we've got a great product on our hands -- but it ultimately comes down to the voting. And I think what makes this award really coveted and really special is it's done by 47 jurors, 47 auto journalists. We have high respect for them, they're the best at what they do, writing about cars and trucks, they evaluate product every day, all manufacturers 365 days a year. They have voted and the have obviously named the Saturn Aura the Car of the Year. We couldn't be more thrilled. And because of that, it's not just one person's opinion, but it's 47 opinions and that's a good endorsement for this brand and it's a great recognition for the kind of product we've brought forward to the marketplace.


Autoblog: How much are you going to incorporate that into your advertising campaigns going forward?

Jill Lajdziak: Well, we're certainly going to let the world know. Again, we respect this award. It's a coveted award in North America because of how the ballot is cast and who it is that's making the decision. So we're going to let the world know. We're not necessarily going to talk about the competition that we beat. We want people to evaluate the vehicle based on what it is and we want to make sure that they evaluate the vehicle vis-à-vis the competition, certainly, and it puts it on the consideration list. We are in USA Today with a full page ad of course, and we had that ready to go because we're proud. We're proud of the award, we want all of our Saturn owners to be proud of the award and it just lets the rest of the world know that there's something going on at Saturn, to check us out, put us on your consideration list and start to look at our products.

Autoblog: Let's talk about the brand for a moment. You are in the unique position of overseeing essentially a complete changeover from one state of the brand to basically a whole new brand even though it's an existing one. Describe the challenges that you face changing over something like that, because I know you have an existing customer base, you know, for the "old Saturn" and most of the ones that we know personally are fiercely loyal to the brand. How do you bring them along as you evolve the brand?

Jill Lajdziak: You know, and I love that question Alex because we wouldn't be here where we are today without our loyal owners. We've got over 3 million Saturn owners on the road and I want them to come along on this journey with us. We're reaching them, we've got a wonderful communication in our owner magazine, we've talked about our strategy, we've let them know how we're growing our portfolio, why we're growing it the way we're growing it and we very much want them to be a part of the Saturn family going forward. At the same time with this very big portfolio growth we've got to cast our net wider and bring in new intenders for this brand. And we'll be reaching them in unique ways as well, different advertising mediums and marketing mediums to make sure that we're reaching them.

Autoblog: Back in New York in April, the NY Auto Show was essentially the coming out party for Saturn because that was the only GM press conference and it was all about you guys. How do you feel -- obviously the relationship with Opel is being leveraged heavily on a go forward basis and that brings an entirely new feel, a very European feel, to the cars. How satisfied are you with the brand differentiation Saturn is receiving compared to Chevy and Buick and Pontiac?

Jill Lajdziak: I am absolutely ecstatic about our collaboration with our partners in Opel. You know, it's a global world today. The consumer is global. The consumer buys today, I think, globally. I think the ability for us to leverage the great resources within global General Motors and the design talent in Europe for this brand is exactly what we have needed. It's very important. We are going to win in North America with eight differently-shaded brands, from Chevrolet to Cadillac to Saturn, Hummer, Saab, Buick, Pontiac, GMC, with different positions for each one of the brands. And differentiation in the design character of each of our eight brands in North America and I think our opportunity to partner with Opel and to bring a difference to the marketplace vis-à-vis the other brands in the U.S. market is absolutely key and our strategy for our portfolio and collaborating with Opel and the GM Europe team gives us the opportunity to do so.

Autoblog: Now, the Aura gave everyone the first taste of that but the Aura is not exactly a pure ported-over Opel. However, the upcoming Vue is very much the Opel Antara. Just talk to us in general about the new Vue and how you plan to hit the marketplace with it in the spring.

Jill Ladjziak: Well, you know we're launching a lot of products right now Alex, with the Sky, the Aura and the Outlook, our 8-passenger crossover vehicle is just arriving in our retail facilities. So, we don't want to talk a lot about the new Vue yet (smiles). It does come to the market late the second quarter of this year and you're right, this is a vehicle that's truly a global product where we have leveraged resources around the world. Opel will have a similar product in the European market called the Antara. And then obviously Korea as well. But this is a vehicle from a design character standpoint that again, continues to send a signal of where we're going. We started with Sky, pulled it through on Aura, you see that design character in Outlook and now you see it in a very big way of what the evolution of the design character is when you take a look at the 2008 Saturn Vue.

Autoblog: Regarding the Outlook, do you have any concerns about it being perhaps too similar to the GMC Acadia or do you think you've differentiated it enough to set it apart?

Jill Lajdziak: We absolutely do. When you look at the Acadia, when you look at the Buick Enclave -- another beautiful product -- we think they absolutely are pulled apart from a design standpoint, an interior standpoint. Our focus is going to be on fuel economy and the versatility of this product. This is a crossover vehicle that is going to lead and segment in a lot of different ways, fuel economy being one of them. And I think absolutely, we've got three very strong competitors in the marketplace from General Motors.

Autoblog: It would be wrong to talk about Saturn and not talk about the Sky because the Sky is the opposite of everything Saturn stood for before. Tell us about how it feels to be given a product like that for a brand in which there really had been no precedence for it.

Jill Lajdziak: Yeah, Alex this was -- boy we talked a lot about this. What vehicle do we lead this product assault with? And you know, there's no better vehicle than a beautiful, emotional, engaging, sexy little roadster to start to turn heads. We can talk about a billboard campaign, we can talk about a marketing campaign on the air, but when you put a product like that on the road what we wanted to have happen is we wanted people to turn their heads and say, "that's a Saturn?" And shock people. Because we were all about just a small car. The Vue helped change that perception as we brought the sport utility in the marketplace. But people had in their minds what a Saturn looked like. And we wanted to start to let the world know that something was going to change in a very big bold dramatic way and that's the design character of the portfolio.

Autoblog: Getting back to the Aura for a moment, Saturn is unique in that it attacked the market with two V-6's only. There's no base 4-cylinder for the Aura, whereas most market competitors feature that. Clearly, it's a direct shot to really try and elevate the Aura above similar competitors -- particularly the imported ones – whose base models run on 4-cylinders. How did you arrive at this decision?

Jill Lajdziak: Yeah. Well, what was important to us in this vehicle is we did not want to compromise at any turn. We wanted this vehicle to be, what I like to say and Bob Lutz likes to say, is "all singing and all dancing." And we believe we've done that with our 3.5L V-6 strategy, a very good powertrain. It's been a terrific powertrain for the company and it's fuel efficient, 30 miles to the gallon. When people think about a 4-cylinder they think about fuel efficiency and we are able to deliver this powertrain to the marketplace very cost effectively and be fuel efficient at 30 miles to the gallon. And then we up the ante with a 3.6L V6 mated with a 6-speed transmission and 252 horsepower. It puts a little bit more fun behind the wheel if that's your individual preference. We have a good strategy.

Autoblog: You mentioned fuel economy and obviously you have the two Green Line cars – the current Vue and the forthcoming Aura. Obviously, the Vue is going to change over with the new body style but talk to us about what successes you've seen so far with the new Green Line. Is it up to your expectations?

Jill Lajdziak: Yes. I think that the Green Line has been just a terrific enhancement to our product portfolio. Saturn has long been about being environmentally friendly. We're paying that off in the marketplace with hybrid technology and we achieved that Alex by doing some things with the Saturn brand that were just the right thing to do. We recycled body parts before it was cool to recycle body parts, but we did it because that was the right thing for the environment. Now to have the product proof point of Vue Green Line with the hybrid technology in our sport utility is something we're thrilled with. We've changed the game because we don't think a consumer should have to go broke to go green. And we made it very affordable -- 20 percent fuel economy improvement with that powertrain and made it affordable for the consumer and we think that's important. We bring the hybrid technology -- the same technology -- to the marketplace in the Aura hybrid the second quarter of this year.

Autoblog: Now is that also going to be priced -- you know, the intention is to price it low?

Jill Lajdziak: Yes, it'll be very compatible with what we're also doing in the Vue. Again, we want to make sure it's coming to the marketplace very affordable.

Autoblog: And last month at the LA show you guys announced the evolution of the hybrid powertrains that you'll be offering down the line. And that directly addresses the criticisms some people had where they said the Green Line is not a "real hybrid."

Jill Lajdziak: Right.

Autoblog: But you're going to change that when you debut your new 2 mode hybrid system.

Jill Lajdziak: We absolutely are. The LA show was very big for us as we unveiled the next generation Vue. So we unveiled the product itself and we talked about a very robust powertrain strategy. We'll have a 4-cylinder and a 6-cylinder of course; we'll have front-wheel-drive and all-wheel drive with the regular gasoline engines. But we also laid out a very comprehensive hybrid strategy. So initially we will have the Green Line system in the Vue. In 2008, we bring out the two-mode hybrid technology in it.

Autoblog: Is that also going to be called Green Line or are you going to give it a new name?

Jill Lajdziak: We're working on that kind of as we speak. And then down the road we'll be putting plug-in technology into the Vue as well. So, we like that strategy because it's all about choice for the consumer. Different price points – if you want to go Green because that's your personal choice, now you've got the opportunity to look at three different technologies at three different price breaks.

Autoblog: Next month at the Chicago Auto Show you're going to unveil the Saturn Astra which is the Opel imported and branded as a Saturn. That hatchback segment is new for Saturn and the car itself is unique to your brand – no other North American division within GM is going to get it for now. Tell us what you can about the plan for Astra.

Jill Lajdziak: Well, we'll be unveiling the product at the Chicago Auto Show as you just mentioned, and we're very excited about doing so. Small cars are very important to the Saturn brand -- that has been our foundation over time -- and to bring in this particular product is something we're thrilled to be doing. We'll talk more about that though next month in Chicago.

Autoblog: Last year you sold over 200,000 vehicles.

Jill Lajdziak: 214,000 vehicles in total.

Autoblog: And what's your plan in terms of volume going forward?

Jill Lajdziak: You know what, I'm going to remain very focused on this throughout the year. We're not going to call a volume. This brand is all about taking care of each and every customer one customer at a time. And I think that's how you win in the marketplace. The marketplace dictates your volume; they call it for you based on your great products. We know we have great products. If you get caught up in a number, you run the risk of getting away from making sure that you look everybody in the eye the way this brand's always done business -- the right way --and we're not going to take our eye off the ball on that. So we're not going to call a number.

Autoblog: I spoke to Ed Welburn yesterday and he says he talks to you all the time. From the looks of things, it's fairly obvious that those have been productive conversations. Describe your relationship with GM's design team.

Jill Lajdziak: Ed Welburn and I are joined at the hip. We have been on a mission with our two teams working together. You know, make no mistake, there have been many people that have believed in this brand and Welburn is one of them. You know, Bob Lutz is one of them, Rick Wagoner is one of them, Troy Clark, our president in North America has been one of them and now we're just delivering exactly what we mapped out to do. America has wanted more product from us. They wanted beautiful product from us, they want a refined product from us in interiors and now we're delivering on that.

Autoblog: One last question. Bob Lutz is about as fierce a defender of the Saturn brand -- and all the GM brands, for that matter -- as there is. For you, as the head of the brand, what's it like to see that level of enthusiasm from a top-tier executive? Where really there's almost a willingness to get out in the street and fight for your brand?

Jill Lajdziak: I think Bob, I think Rick, I think everybody on the GM leadership team knows that at the end of the day in the marketplace great brands win, if you're in our business or if you're in any other business. Starbucks is a great brand. Apple is a great brand with what they've done. Saturn is a great brand in the same regard and the leaders of this company know it and now we've got the opportunity to have great product to complement all the rich brand equity this brand has. America fell in love with Saturn for lots of different reasons including its product early on. But it also fell in love with the brand because of how we do business. It is a brand that transcends the product and now we've got great product in the marketplace. Now great things can happen.

Autoblog: Jill, thanks so much for being with us.

Jill Lajdziak: Thank you. Good being with you, Alex.