Autofield Blog

GM Investing $5-Billion Outside of Mature Markets


By: Gary S. Vasilash 28. July 2015

When General Motors was going through its Troubles a few years ago, when it was making plans to shed divisions like leaves from a maple tree in October, there were some people who made an argument on behalf of keeping Buick in the fold for one simple, enormous reason: China.

Buick has had a storied history in the world’s largest auto market from early on in the 20th century. According to Buick, Pu Yi, the last emperor of the kingdom, rolled in a Buick, as did subsequent leaders including Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and Zhou Enlai.

And a whole lot of regular people, too.

But when you think of “regular people” in the context of General Motors, it is probably of Chevrolet, not Buick. After all, if we go to Alfred Sloan’s hierarchy of brands, the starting place is Chevy. And now it goes to Buick and/or GMC, then to Cadillac.

Chevrolet Find New Roads

New roads in places like in Brazil, India, Mexico. . .and China

Chevy is what regular people drive. The other brands are driven by regular people who have achieved an aspirational position. Even if it isn’t emperor.

So it comes as not an enormous surprise that today General Motors president Dan Ammann announced, “With a significant majority of anticipated automotive industry grown in 2015 to 2030 outside of mature markets”—as in the United States and western Europe—“Chevrolet is taking steps to capitalize on that growth.”

And to make money you have to spend money, as the saying goes, so Chevrolet is going to be investing (well, GM, really) $5-billion to develop a new vehicle family for growth markets—as in Brazil, India, Mexico. . .and China.

In fact, this program includes joint development of the core architecture and engine with Shanghai-based SAIC Motor. (Once “SAIC” stood for “Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation”; now it is just a group of letters.)

The vehicle family is going to be specifically developed to meet the specific needs of specific locales. Meaning, this isn’t going to be a case of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Mark Reuss, GM executive vice president, Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain (a title that is something of a trifecta, given that in order for developed products to be executed, purchasing and supply chain play significant roles), said, “The new vehicle family will feature advanced customer-facing technologies focused on connectivity, safety and fuel efficiency delivered at a compelling value.”

Of course. Internet. Safety. Fuel economy. Which is pretty much of interest everywhere.

But here’s the more pertinent quote: “It will be a combination of content and value not offered previously by any automaker in these markets that are poised for growth.”

Bingo.

In order to be successful in Brazil, India, Mexico. . .and China, they’re going to be creating appropriate combinations, not a one-size-fits all (although the physical size of the vehicles will probably be pretty much the same) approach to content.

Ammann said, “This growth initiative is the next important step toward our goal of building the world’s most-valued automotive company.”

And he’s putting GM’s money where its mouth is.


Concept Car Winners & the Concours d’Elegance of America


By: Gary S. Vasilash 27. July 2015

This past weekend the Concours d’Elegance of America at St. John’s was held in Plymouth, Michigan. That’s over, obviously.

But one thing that occurred at the venue where more than 300 cars were on display in some magnificent glory—not only the likely suspects like Duesenberg, Auburn, Pierce Arrow, and Bentley, but also Muscle Cars, Drag Cars, and Bonneville Streamliners—was the awarding of the 2015 North American Concept Car of the Year Awards.

(Full disclosure: I’m a judge.)

And this year’s awardees are nothing short of conceptually impressive.

The 2015 Production Preview Concept of the Year went to the Ford GT:

Ford GT at NAIAS

The 2015 Concept Car of the Year was awarded to the Mercedes F 015:

Mercedes-Benz F015 - Luxury in Motion

And the 2015 Concept Truck of the Year was bestowed on the Hyundai Santa Cruz:

Santa Cruz Crossover Truck Concept

(Here’s an interesting thing to note: While the Mercedes was unveiled at the 2015 CES in Las Vegas, the other two had their debuts at the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.)

However. . .

If you’re interested in learning about what goes into a concurs in general and the Concours d’Elegance of America in particular, then you will be want to watch this edition of “Autoline After Hours,” where Larry Moss, chairman of the event, talks about how the event is orchestrated every year.

Moss, in conversation with host John McElroy, Edward Niedermeyer of the Daily Kanban, and me, describes how it isn’t merely a car show, but actually includes aspects of fashion, art and education.

In addition to which, McElroy, Niedermeyer and I discuss a range of topics including Tesla’s battery swap station in Harris Ranch, California, and the hacking of the Cherokee and its implications for the auto industry.

And you can see it all here:

 


VW Hits 500,000 in Chattanooga


By: Gary S. Vasilash 24. July 2015

The Volkswagen Plant in Chattanooga went into production in April 2011. Its initial objective was to produce the Passat sedan that was developed specifically for the North American market (as in other global markets have a different Passat).

Passat 2015

When the car first hit the roads, it gained plenty of favor, such as being named the 2012 Motor Trend Car of the Year, among other accolades.

Unfortunately, the Passat hasn’t been performing particularly well in the U.S. market. Through June 2015, sales of the car were off 15.2% from the same period in 2014. And if we look back to how it fared in the first half of 2014, it was down 11.3% from the first half of 2013.

Not good.

Anyway, the men and women at Volkswagen Chattanooga deserve a tip of the proverbial hat because on Wednesday of this week they produced the 500,000th Passat.

VW plant

Very good.

Volkswagen Group knows that they’ve got a fine manufacturing facility there in southeastern Tennessee because they are investing $900-million to expand the plant to build a seven-seat midsize SUV. The start of production is planned for late 2016.

There are some 2,400 people working in the plant. The expansion will add 2,000 more.


A Red Dot for a Robot


By: Gary S. Vasilash 23. July 2015

When we’ve written about the Red Dot Awards in the past, it has typically been about Peter Schreyer managing still another win for Kia.

But it came to our attention that a product that is found in factories producing stampings for parts has achieved a Red Dot Award.

It is the Crossbar Robot 4.0 from Schuler.

Schuler

According to the jury: “The smooth surfaces of the industrial robot appear immaculate and fluid. The bright white communicates cleanly executed workflows.”

What the jury probably doesn’t know is that the Crossbar Robot is used to automate press lines—be they mechanical or hydraulic, new lines or retrofits—and can handle up to 15 parts per minute.

They’ve developed new variants of the material handling device: the Crossbar Robot 4.0S, with an additional shift axis, and the Crossbar Robot 4.0H, which can handle hot-stamped parts.

Yes, even industrial equipment can have first-rate designs.


2015 Acura TLX SH-AWD Advance


By: Gary S. Vasilash 22. July 2015

Back in the day when there were Yellow Pages—yes, there still are Yellow Pages, but one is undoubtedly more likely to avail oneself of Google or Yelp—companies sometimes created names that would allow them to show up early in the listings. That is (for those of you who are unfamiliar with the way the YP is organized), if a company is in the repair business, it might want a name like “AAAA Repair” because that would show up before “Bob’s Repair.” “Awesome Pizza” would precede “Giuseppe’s Pies.”

Whether or not it actually worked is something else entirely. But the early initial letter certainly got a company ahead of the others.

Acura probably wishes that there were more people who used a Yellow Pages when looking for a car. Somehow, when you ask someone to name luxury brands—even Japanese luxury brands—Acura gets left off the list. BMW or Mercedes. Lexus or Infiniti. Audi. Cadillac. Even Lincoln.

2015 Acura TLX

But its relative longevity notwithstanding (Acura was introduced in 1986—Lexus three years later), somehow it has managed to elude the attention, and the sales, that its competitors have racked up.

Which is really a shame, because the company makes some damn fine vehicles.

Case in point: the TLX.

The TLX is a midsize sports sedan. One of the things that Honda has long been known for is its powertrain technology and. . .

“Wait a minute,” you say. “This is a story about Acura. Why are you now talking about Honda?”

Well, as Toyota is to Lexus, Nissan to Infiniti, and VW to Audi, Honda is to Acura.

And Honda is a world’s class powertrain developer. While there are people who actually work for “Acura,” one shouldn’t forget the roots of where they come from. And in this instance, it is a good thing.

Because this is the “sports” sedan territory, the TLX is this particular case has a considerable amount of powertrain and driveline technology that makes the vehicle, well, sporty. As in a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 290 hp and which is mated to a nine-speed automatic (yes, there are paddle shifters).

2015 Acura TLX

In addition to which, there is SH-AWD, which is “Super Handling-All Wheel Drive,” which is better known by its acronym, as the other version sounds like something that might come out of Nintendo.

The all-aluminum engine features direct injection and variable cylinder management, which means that when cruising along at highway speeds, for example, three of the six cylinders can be shut off to save fuel. And speaking of shutting things off, there is idle-stop capability (a.k.a., a “start-stop system”), which means when, say, at a stop light, the engine will shut off, again for purposes of fuel savings.

One of the problems that vexes some start-stop systems is that upon restart it can be a jarring event. So Acura has deployed a 28-Volt “Active Control” engine mount that counteracts those sudden vibrations.

As mentioned, the nine-speed transmission has paddle shifters. What is in some ways more interesting, and which will be used each and every time you drive the TLX, is an electronic pushbutton gear selector mounted on the center console where the shift leaver would otherwise be located. This not only opens up space, but it also makes for a more attractive control layout.

SH-AWD is a torque vectoring system. Acura has been working SH-AWD for a number of years and has used it to great effect in the MDX SUV. This hydraulically controlled system is most helpful in cornering situations—at high speeds or low—by transferring torque to the wheel that needs it the most.

The TLX is a clean-sheet car for Acura, meaning that there is an all new platform that was developed to help make Acura more competitive in the sport-sedan territory. There is four-wheel independent suspension (MacPherson struts in the front and a multi-link setup in the rear). The car uses a cast-aluminum and steel front subframe that’s mean to keep the driver and passengers from feeling jolted by the road surface. In addition to which there are amplitude reactive dampers that deploy two separate damping pistons, one to accommodate minor inputs in ordinary driving and the other to handle damping when the car is being driven hard.

A point of the TLX is that it can be driven hard, but when doing so it isn’t a situation where you feel like you are exhausted from the experience.

2015 Acura TLX

Acura apparently recognizes that cars are most often driven by regular people under regular circumstances, as opposed to actual or would-be race drivers who live on a mountain top that can only be reached by roads with more twists and turns than a ziggurat. One indication of this is that driving modes can be selected via pushbutton that include ECON, Normal, Sport, and Sport +, with the first being a means to optimize fuel efficiency; Sport adjusting the throttle, steering and SH-AWD rear-wheel torque vectoring; Sport + also adjusting transmission mapping.

The interior is well executed. Acura interior designers call their approach to the front seats “dual personal structure,” which pretty much means that what the driver needs is readily at hand, and the center console can be accessed by either the driver or the passenger. I found the lines on the instrument panel to be well thought-out—it seems as though someone was really paying attention to their task and executed well.

Yes, there are screens, an eight-inch color screen high in the instrument panel and a lower seven-inch screen that has menus in place of a plethora of buttons. (Although there are still buttons.)

The vehicle as driven has the “Advance Package,” which includes things like collision mitigation braking (if you don’t pay attention to its alert that you’re going to bang into something, it will apply the binders itself), adaptive cruise control with low-speed follow (let’s face it—what’s more tedious than slow going?), lane departure warning, and more. And, of course, there is all of the other now-obligatory tech on offer (e.g., navigation, Sirius XM, etc.).

From a styling standpoint, the TLX seems to be a design with more confidence, which means dialing back on some of the “look-at-me” characteristics of previous generations of Acura cars and trucks. To the company’s credit, it doesn’t seem as though it is trying to be something from another brand. It is as though after all these years, Acura is really coming back into its own.

Sedans are facing rough sledding in the market right now as it is smooth going for SUVs, especially for compact SUVs like the Acura RDX. But for those who are in the market for a luxury sport sedan, it is certainly well worth it to start at the beginning of the alphabet and to check out Acura.

Selected specs

Engine: 3.5-liter SOHC, DI V6

Material: Aluminum block and head

Horsepower: 290 @ 6,200 rpm

Torque: 267 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm

Transmission: Nine-speed automatic

Steering: Electric power assist rack-and-pinion

Wheelbase: 109.3 in.

Length: 190.3 in.

Width 73 in.

Height: 57 in.

Passenger volume: 93.3 cu. ft.

Curb weight: 3,774 lb.

EPA fuel economy: city/highway/combined: 21/31/25 mpg

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