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GM chief succeeds … as butt of TV jokes

Would you buy a used Chevy Cobalt from Mary Barra?

The recently installed CEO of General Motors serves as little more than the punch line for bad jokes these days, courtesy of her duck-and-weave testimony on Capitol Hill over GM's decade-long failure to deal with ignition-switch problems in the Chevy Cobalt and other small GM models.

It's hard to tell if Barra's appearance before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee proved little more than a warm-up act for Saturday Night Live's television lampooning of her unresponsive testifying.

"Ms. Barra, are you even familiar with the defective ignition switch?" one SNL "congressman" asks in the TV spoof. "Can you use it in a sentence?" stonewalls the GM "chief."

The content of the actual subcommittee hearing was not much different. Barra, 52, was accused of speaking "gobbledygook."

GM covered up an ignition-switch defect that led to the deaths of at least 13 people. Before the company reluctantly agreed to recall more than 2 million vehicles, it issued a service bulletin to dealers recommending customers remove heavy items from their key rings. That action was supposed to lessen the odds that the rings bump the ignition key to "off" while the car was moving.

Lame. And deadly.

What is America going to do with GM? The glory days feel long gone. Much of the past decade was spent watching the automaker produce mostly mediocre cars and finally go bankrupt in 2009. A new GM emerged only because taxpayers bailed it out. Now we have this new mess.

"Today, if there is a safety issue, we take action," Barra testified last week as families of people killed in GM vehicles listened from the back of the subcommittee hearing room. "We've moved from a cost culture to a customer culture."

One skeptical member of the House subcommittee is Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat who represents portions of both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. During the hearing, she asked how Barra personally could not know about Cobalt safety issues when they were reported in the New York Times in 2005.

"I find it baffling that not only did GM know about this serious problem over a decade ago, but that it was discussed on the pages of the New York Times," Castor said. "And when GM responded publicly, it essentially told drivers, 'No big deal. Engines cut off all the time,' " Castor said. "When your engine suddenly cuts off when you're driving on the highway, would you consider this a safety issue?"

The Cobalt was unveiled for the 2005 model year, the same year GM reported a stunning loss of $10.6 billion. The Cobalt replaced both the Cavalier and the Prizm as Chevrolet's compact car. Largely panned in car reviews, the Cobalt has since been replaced by the Chevy Cruze.

But don't worry. Dozens of used Cobalts are still for sale in the Tampa Bay area. I'm guessing it's a buyer's market.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra listens as she testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, April 2, 2014.

Associated Press

General Motors CEO Mary Barra listens as she testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, April 2, 2014.

GM chief succeeds … as butt of TV jokes 04/09/14 [Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2014 12:48pm]
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