Elizabeth Swaney, the GMC Sierra Hybrid, and Dieselgate: Olympic Hijinks Bring the Car World to Mind

The skier’s rule-skirting in Pyeongchang may have been looked down on upon, but such antics aren’t uncommon in the automotive realm.

byEric Adams| PUBLISHED Feb 21, 2018 7:20 PM
Elizabeth Swaney, the GMC Sierra Hybrid, and Dieselgate: Olympic Hijinks Bring the Car World to Mind

Like many Olympics enthusiasts, I’ve been transfixed the last few days by the story of Elizabeth Swaney, the completely average American skier who dove through loopholes in the Olympic qualifications systems to slide into a slot on Hungary’s national team. Her tepid, no-tricks half-pipe routine is one for the ages—in the worst way. But it was also—despite many new fans’ claims to the contrary—a vile display of disrespect and unearned honor. She weaseled her way into an event that people dedicate their lives to just so she could say she did, wasting the time of both the judges and the spectators and whatever effort and funds were expended by her hijacked country on her behalf. (Her claims that she was disappointed in not advancing in the competition shows how little self-awareness she actually possesses.)

But the rule-fudging antics of this skier and her no-talent, sham bid for stolen glory in an age of runaway fraud struck a chord deep in my mental inventory of automotive history. In fact, my brain almost immediately  (and with surprising ferocity) found a parallel: The 2005 GMC Sierra 1500 Extended Cab Hybrid.

I remember it like it was yesterday, because I’d confronted the farce personally and directly. I’d traveled all the way to Detroit from New York City to attend a party thrown by General Motors in honor of an editorial package I’d helped produce at Popular Science, along with the magazine's editor-in-chief and one of the ad sales guys. There was a car there that was somehow involved in the package, though I can’t quite remember what it was. But this fable only deals with the other vehicle present—a bright neon-green GMC Sierra Hybrid brought along as some eye-candy, presumably to win the hearts of the hybrid-loving press.

Didn’t work.

For starters, the existence of the vehicle was news to me—the automotive editor at PopSci—and when I inquired about its hybrid properties, the answers I received were suspiciously vague. I asked if it could run on electric power alone, to which someone said, “Nah.” I asked if it could boost power to the 5.3-liter V8 engine...at which point someone handed me a drink. So I asked, genuinely baffled, what it did do, as our ad-sales guy slowly and quite deliberately drifted into my field of view. One of the GM guys explained—with total confidence and not a lick of shame—that the car could shut off its engine at stoplights and power electronics through 120-volt outlets...as long as the V8 engine was running, that is.

I took a drink. The ad guy stared daggers at me.

Ultimately, I made it through the party without taking a flamethrower to the wretched Sierra. But I was furious. Furious at GM for fronting this absolute fraud of a “hybrid” truck in an era when people were actually starting to kinda care about this stuff. I felt mocked—even though I know that was nobody at GM's intent—and that projects like this tend to snowball their way into existence, often against everybody’s better judgment. 

Still, it stung worse than a swarm of Africanized honeybees. The lurid green Sierra still frequently pops into my brain in my idle downtime, when my consciousness gravitates to all the WTF moments of my career. So it naturally sprang up when I watched Elizabeth Swaney’s half-pipe routine, which was absent any tricks, good intentions, or legitimate aspirations toward actual skill. She merely wanted to be in the Olympics, so she deliberately forged her own shortcut. 

When I equated Swaney and the Sierra, other close rivals in automotive fraud came to mind. I thought of the 1981 DeLorean DMC-12, which certainly looked the part of a proper sports car...but the gull-winged coupe’s 110-horsepower Volvo-sourced engine generated the most flaccid performance imaginable. It could only get to 60 miles per hour in 10.5 seconds, and it topped out at 110mph. It’s a miracle Marty McFly could even reach 88 mph in that mall parking lot.

Then I thought of all the Saab-badged GM cars of the early Aughts. When the big automaker took over the iconic-but-struggling Swedish carmaker in 2000, things went to shit fast, with miserably-middle-brow badge-engineered Old GM products trying to capitalize on the acquired brand’s storied legacy. The scam petered out after a few years, and Saab closed up for good.

Next in my revolving door of rage came pretty much every car currently pumping fake engine noises into the cabin through the stereo: In recent years, this list has included cars ranging from Ford Mustangs to Volkswagen GTIs to Porsches and BMWs, including the vaunted i8. (Though in that case it at least makes some kind of sense, given its 3-cylinder engine and supercar vibe.) The technique in general is fraudulent and, frankly, insulting, leading us to believe we’re experiencing something we’re not.

Finally, there’s all those Volkswagen Dieselgate cars. The company took a flagrant shortcut in order to ensure their cars would pass emissions tests, violating both customer and regulatory trust as well as basic integrity. Not enough can be said about the hubris and arrogance that led the company to set that mechanism in motion. (But the automotive journalist in me has to add: Hey, at least they were selling diesels, right?)

Am I really equating Swaney’s affront to the multi-biollion-dollar quagmire that is Dieselgate, or even the lame-but-ultimately-harmless GMC hybrid pickup? Of course not. The whole affair just hit a nerve. Nevertheless, they all represent worrisome lapses in judgement and integrity, which might be justified by supporters who would argue that a) sneaking around emissions standards is harmless because the cars might still generate net environmental benefits compared to their competitors; b) phony credentials still sell cars and impress people, and c) if you can find a loophole, you should exploit it.

But sorry, it’s not okay. Cheating's cheating. And if you’re going to be in the game, at least try to respect it.