GM: Finally embracing innovation?

Auto buffs gush over “car guys” — executives driven not by quarterly reports but by a love for great engineering and styling. General Motors just picked such an enthusiast as its new CEO; she just happens to be a woman. GM on Tuesday tapped 33-year veteran Mary Barra to lead the nation’s largest automaker. Beyond breaking another Fortune 500 glass ceiling, her promotion also signals an intriguing direction for Detroit’s future.

Barra, an electrical engineer by training, is a second-generation GM employee; her father was a die maker at Pontiac for nearly four decades. This background helped win over GM traditionalists, but what best qualifies her to run a modern automaker has been a readiness to buck tradition. Currently in charge of engineering, design, and quality for GM vehicles globally, Barra was an early champion of the Chevy Cruze, a top-selling compact car. She’s also worked hard to streamline GM’s bureaucratic development process. Her chief directive? “No more crappy cars.

The result is new, exciting product lines — and a visible uptick in sales. In a sign of how far the company has come, the Treasury Department Monday sold off its remaining GM shares, less than five years after bankruptcy and a taxpayer bailout. Barra’s selection by the GM board signals its desire to embrace further change, but true distinction will come only if Barra can push GM to be a leader on more fuel-efficient vehicles, particularly ones Americans want to buy.