by Jim Kerr

Body designs, innovative options, and new colours get a lot of attention when manufacturers introduce new vehicles. Styling and content does sell cars, but there is another element that also contributes to the success of a vehicle. It’s the powertrain. Recently, the people behind the scenes at GM’s powertrain division gave us a look at the versatility and performance of a variety of powertrains. Even though I have spent all of my adult life in the automotive industry, I got a few surprises.

One of the biggest surprises I received was seeing the wide range of applications for GM engines and transmissions. To gain some personal experience, I climbed into the first vehicle. Slipping into the harness, I pulled the harness belts tight; really tight! A little nervous, I
wanted to be ready. The 3.0 litre four cylinder engine was already warm and running. I checked the panel and got ready to go. A quick touch of the controls, a feel of acceleration, and the wind was blowing in my face as I towered 66 feet above the crowd! I was in a GM powered platform lift and the view was spectacular. Some lifts go to 120 feet, but even at half that height, it would be a perfect way to view a car

Not to be outdone, the forklift course was next. Both 4 cylinder and V6 GM engines supplied the power as I moved a heavy looking load of rocks around the course. After driving the course, I inspected the load more carefully only to discover that the rocks were really made out of rubber! To give the forklifts some credit, there were units with ratings up to 24,000 lb. lift capacity.

Other applications on display included an Vortec 8100 big block V8 generator unit that can supply power for several households, and another 8100 engine providing the power for an agriculture irrigation pump. Versatility was the key word.

Another surprise was GM’s marine applications. A 375 horsepower, 8100 Vortec powered air boat pushed us across land, water, and marsh at speeds up to 50 miles per hour. Even move powerful inboard versions of the engine took us along the lake at breath taking speeds, but the real thrill was a ride at over 100 mph in Fountain Boats off-shore racing boat.

Two race prepared 6.0 liter Vortec V8’s combined to put out more than 1200 horsepower. The sound was spectacular, the ride as smooth as glass, and the handling amazing, but the neat part was that a lot of the engine parts were stock GM! The intake was a stock 6.0-litre manifold. The injectors came from a 8100 Vortec V8, as did the throttle body. The cylinder heads had been ported using the extrusion honing process, but were otherwise production units. Sure, there were the special high compression pistons, titanium connecting rods, and a billet steel crankshaft, but most of the special parts were used for racing
durability rather that producing more horsepower.

GM engines are used in 100 percent of the North American original equipment stern drive marine applications and they are looking to expand worldwide. Plans to market them under the Vortec banner will expand GM’s powertrain brand recognition beyond the current truck lineup here at home as well as internationally. The Vortec name has been associated with GM truck engines for several years. With GM’s industrial and marine engines using the same label, the vehicle you use at work, the one you drive home (GM hopes), and the one in your boat will all carry the same reputation for power and durability.

So what does the future hold for GM engines? Five basic engine designs will fill GM’s gasoline powertrain needs for the foreseeable future. There are two V6 engines; one with pushrods and another with overhead camshafts. I suspect the pushrod engines will be based on current 3400 V6 designs but in even smaller displacements. Overhead camshaft engines will follow the “Northstar” design used in Cadillac and Oldsmobile. Sadly, the reliable 3.8-liter V6 will probably go by the wayside because of ever tightening emission restrictions.

There are inline engines; a four, and five cylinder variation of the new 4.2 litre inline six-cylinder introduced in the 2002 TrailBlazer, Envoy, and Bravada SUV’s. Powertrain staff have hinted we will find these in both front and rear wheel drive applications, and they will replace all current inline engines currently in use.

And of course there will be V8’s. A continuation of the most popular engine GM has ever built, the small block Chevy will see continued use in trucks and performance cars. Currently these V8’s put out up to 385 horses in stock trim, but high performance truck versions have recently been introduced, and even higher performance will be available in the future.

Finally, there will be the powerful big block V8 engine. Currently offered with 8.1 litre displacement, this engine offers low rpm pulling power that is required for heavy duty work applications. While increased fuel costs may reduce the volume of large displacement engines in use, there will always be a need for this type of engine when the work needs to get done.

The future may bring fuel cells, hydrogen engines, and electric cars. All manufacturers are working on these designs, but gasoline will likely power the majority of vehicles, small boats, and machines in the near future. GM believes their engines and transmissions are the reason many buy the products they do.

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