The production Volt is a four-door, four-seat compact sedan
The production Volt is a four-door, four-seat compact sedan. Click image to enlarge

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GM Next

Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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GM Next

Detroit, Michigan – On September 16, 1908, in Hudson County, New Jersey, William Crapo Durant filed incorporation papers for a new company he called General Motors.

One hundred years to the day, representatives from his company’s facilities in Mexico, Australia, Russia, Canada, Brazil, Germany, Korea and China hooked up via satellite to wish their parent company in Detroit a happy birthday, while executives outlined the business plan the company is putting in place to take it into its next century. While GM’s original cornerstone was Buick, it’s counting on Chevrolet and Cadillac to lead the revival, with the introduction of the production Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car, the new Chevrolet Cruze compact, and a Cadillac wagon that’ll be sold both in Europe and in North America.

Billy Durant was unusual within the fledgling auto industry. Most of his contemporaries were engineers or inventors, who designed and built cars and then set up the companies to sell them, such as Henry Ford or John and Horace Dodge. This was what David Buick had done, successfully with the car, and less so with his company.

The Volt's interior was meant to look futuristic but still familiar
The production Chevrolet Volt
The Volt’s interior was meant to look futuristic but still familiar (top); The production Chevrolet Volt. Click image to enlarge

Durant wasn’t mechanically-minded, and really didn’t know that much about the new horseless carriages. Instead, he envisioned a corporation that would bring numerous car, truck and parts companies together under a single banner that he originally intended to call International Motors. The first was Buick, followed by Oldsmobile, and then Cadillac and Oakland, later renamed Pontiac. He even tried to add Ford, but couldn’t meet Henry’s price. He added companies by the handful – more than 30 in the first twelve years – but the failure of many of them, and their effect on GM, caused his directors to turf him from the corporation. His return in 1918 was the result of leveraging a company that he’d started with race driver Louis Chevrolet. Always the corporation’s volume seller, that brand is now being groomed to shore up GM’s lagging North American sales.

The big news was the introduction of the production version of the Chevrolet Volt, the evolution of the concept car first shown at the Detroit Auto Show in 2007. Now a four-door, four-seater compact sedan, the Volt is scheduled to go into production, most likely at the company’s Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, in November 2010.

Unique to the market, the Volt is a plug-in electric vehicle, with a range of 40 miles (64 km) on a charge – about the average U.S. commuter’s day, the company’s research showed. Once that depletes, the Volt uses a gasoline engine to give it a range of several hundred kilometres. Unlike a hybrid, though, the gas engine doesn’t power the car; instead, it runs the electric motor, so that the Volt’s ultimate power source at the wheels is exclusively electricity.

1953 was the first year for Corvette
1953 was the first year for Corvette. Click image to enlarge

“Range is a sacred thing that we are holding true to,” said Denise Gray, Director, Global Battery Engineering. “We’re always balancing how to make sure that we attain that 40 miles. That’s what up to about 80 per cent of normal U.S. commuters will need, and we honed in on that. We think the advantage is bringing down the cost of that battery first, rather than going to 80 or 120 miles. It still wouldn’t eliminate gas, because you still need something for long range. We need to reduce the size of the battery, which still weighs about 400 lbs (181 kg), and it makes more sense to reduce the size of the battery than to double the range.”

Work continues on the battery, which is T-shaped, with the long end running lengthwise along the car’s longitudinal axis (which is why the rear seat only holds two people). Gray said that her team tests batteries with simulated driving schedules, taking energy out or putting it in, to reproduce a number of city and highway scenarios, as well as repeated charging. The system has also undergone numerous safety tests, including training with emergency responders who will have to know how to handle the vehicle in a crash.

The technology is the key, according to Assistant Chief Engineer Alex Cattelan, who sees the Volt as just the first of a line of products. “A wagon or crossover is a possibility,” she says. “This current architecture can be sized one car size up or one down. This is a compact, so it can go to a micro or a midsize.” The price? GM isn’t talking right now, but when asked if the company was targeting the sticker on the Toyota Prius, currently the volume seller among hybrids, Cattelan said that it is not, because “it’s not the same as a Prius.” As for the target date, she said that “we wouldn’t be revealing the production of the Volt if we didn’t think it was realistic to look at November 2010. It’s an absolute imperative.”

The Cruze's size slots it between the Aveo and Malibu
The Cruze's size slots it between the Aveo and Malibu
The Cadillac CTS Sports Wagon will be built in Detroit for global sales including Canada
The Cruze’s size slots it between the Aveo and Malibu (top two photos); The Cadillac CTS Sports Wagon will be built in Detroit for global sales including Canada. Click image to enlarge

Another absolute is the Chevrolet Cruze, revealed to journalists the night before the event, prior to its official presentation next month at the Paris Auto Show. It was joined by the Cadillac CTS Sports Wagon, which will also be revealed in France.

The Cobalt will retire with the coming of the Cruze, but it’s not considered a direct replacement; instead, GM sees the slightly larger Cruze in a segment of its own, bigger than the Aveo (which is also up for a makeover) but smaller than the Malibu. It also marks a major step in GM’s plan to take advantage of its global subsidiaries. Designed in Europe, it will be sold in some 112 countries, and will be built locally for each region. Those for Canada and the U.S. will come from the Cobalt’s current home in Lordstown, Ohio.

The CTS Sports Wagon will also be sold in various countries. The configuration is more at home in Europe, but the car will be built in North America for export. We’ll also see it in North America, where GM hopes it’ll pick up customers, weary of high gas prices, who are abandoning Escalades and will turn to either the wagon or the upcoming, redesigned SRX.

Billy Durant’s original plan of bringing together individual companies worked at the time, but GM clung to it well past its due date as the rest of the world moved in. Bob Lutz, Vice-President of Global Product Development, knew there was something wrong when he asked Saab Design to create some sketches of Cadillac styling on a Saab 9-3. “I thought I’d committed a major crime,” he said. “People were over me saying who’s going to pay for it? I said, it’s Saab, they’re part of us, and I was told they’re on a separate budget. We had four separate departments worldwide, with product overlap. You have to look at this business globally, or you’re not going to get anywhere.”

The Chevrolet Beat concept car
The Chevrolet Beat concept car. Click image to enlarge

His introduction of the Pontiac GTO, a Holden model rebadged for the U.S. market (it was never sold in Canada), met with lukewarm buyer reaction, but “if it wasn’t a huge commercial success, it deserves to go down in history as the vehicle that paved the way for GM global development,” he said. “I wanted the car, and the first thing I heard was you don’t want that one, this is North America, we know how to do rear-wheel drive muscle cars. I said, theirs is running already, but they said, we’ll have to test it. I said, did Australia put it into production without testing? That’s when I found that we had different procedures for body shops, for welding, assembly, philosophies for stamping metal, and there was nothing the same for GM around the globe. Once I got through the GTO program it opened everybody’s eyes to what a silly and wasteful way we had of going about the business.”

The global development teams are now split by region, each handling its strength: the U.S. looks after the Corvette rear-wheel performance platform and midsize crossovers; midsize sedans like the Malibu, and next-generation compacts such as the Cruze and Volt go to GM Europe; rear-wheel drive sedans such as the Chinese Buick Park Avenue, Australian Holden Commodore, and the Middle East’s Chevrolet Caprice are from Australia; and mini architecture, such as the concept Beat, are done in Korea. “There is almost no point in having Europe develop midsize body-on-frame SUVs; they can do it, but it’s not their main area of functional expertise,” Lutz said. “On the other hand, why ask the U.S. to do a mini car like the Beat, when that is a typical Asian car where the Asians have all the expertise in that particular category. The fabrication can be done anywhere.”

The 1938 Buick Y-Job is considered the industry's first concept car
1952 Saab in GM's historical display
The 1938 Buick Y-Job is considered the industry’s first concept car (top); 1952 Saab in GM’s historical display. Click image to enlarge

Profitability is still in the future, Lutz said, with the company first needing to get out from under its healthcare and legacy costs, which he predicts won’t happen until 2010; low prices will also play a huge part, especially with small cars. “Right now it’s tough to make money on anything, but as long as the American customer has a close association with size and price, it won’t work,” he said.

In a hallway of the massive headquarters at Detroit’s Renaissance Center were examples of some of the 450 million vehicles the company sold in its first century, such as a 1934 LaSalle and 1952 Saab; the 1938 Buick Y-Job, considered the industry’s first concept car, with such futuristic innovations as hidden headlights, pushbutton door handles and a power top; and several modern concepts, including the GMC Denali XT hybrid truck, Buick Invicta, Opel Insignia and Cadillac Provoq.

Outside the building, alongside a display of historic Corvettes owned by enthusiasts invited to bring their cars to the celebration, there was a group of vehicles unknown to American buyers but familiar in many other countries: a Holden Commodore VE from Australia, Daewoo Winstorm from Korea, and Wuling pickup truck from China.

It’s a pretty safe bet, when Billy Durant was adding companies like Marquette, Scripps-Booth, Dayton Wright Airplane and Sheridan – as well as winners such as Rapid Truck, which became GMC, and the McLaughlin Motor Car Company, eventually GM of Canada – that he could never have imagined such a thing. But along with Durant’s original Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac and Pontiac, they’re an integral part of GM’s move into the start of its second century.

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