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Beyond Conceptual Issues

“We see it here every day, a young buyer moving out of a sport coupe and getting into a tricked-up little truck—or in this case a crossover vehicle.” The vehicle in question is a Chevy concept, the Borrego.

“We see it here every day, a young buyer moving out of a sport coupe and getting into a tricked-up little truck—or in this case a crossover vehicle.” The vehicle in question is a Chevy concept, the Borrego. The speaker is Frank Saucedo, director of GM’s design studio in Los Angeles. Last April Saucedo told AM&P, “One thing we’re going to concentrate on out here is having a quick reaction to market trends” (April 2000; pp. 56-58).

One of the vehicles that is cited as a possibility for a potential Borrego buyer to move out of is a Camaro, a vehicle that has certainly fallen off of its trend line. Which begs the question: Does speed in getting some product out and other product replaced really matter, or is it still a case of trying to milk the cow that has long since gone dry?

Chevy Borrego
The Chevy Borrego: an adaptable interior, but is there the process adaptability to get vehicles like this out to the market fast?

The basic architecture of the Borrego is like that of the forthcoming Chevy Avalanche in that it permits modifying its cargo space into passenger space and vice versa. The Borrego has a reconfigurable mid-gate that is held in place by solenoid pins. So, if there is a desire for a couple of more seats, the driver activates a remote control system that causes the rear window to retract into the mid-gate; the mid-gate can then be slid rearward and seats added. A roof panel, that’s otherwise stored under the cargo bed, can be put over the top of the additional seating.

Although there is the cargo capability, the Borrego is not meant for hauling a “sheet of drywall,” with drywall being approximately as much of a touchstone for automotive designers of consumer utility vehicles as a sheet of plywood. The Borrego is meant for being banged around in the brush; you can find your way with OnStar. Use the on-board air compressor to blast the dirt out of the cockpit. Use the pressurized water tank to take a shower. If they are seeing things like that happening in and around L.A., well . . .

One interesting aspect of the Borrego is that it isn’t powered by a Chevy block. Instead, its all-wheel-drive powertrain is based on a turbocharged four-cylinder Subaru engine. That’s right: Subaru.

GM owns 20% of Fuji Heavy Industries, which produces Subarus, so GM is “leveraging its international network of automotive alliances.” Which is probably something that it should be doing more of, and not just in powertrain. Presumably, not all of the good ideas in the industry come from North America, and if the corporation has its money invested in various organizations, then it ought to take advantage of whatever opportunities that can be found to improve its products—and its processes.

Here’s a question: Given that Saucedo and his colleagues are seeing these types of vehicles “every day,” will GM—assuming that it goes forward with the Borrego—get the vehicle out while people are still interested in vehicles of this type? Remember: the Chevy SSR—the pickup/roadster—was introduced as a concept in January, 2000; in August, 2000, GM chief Rick Wagoner announced that the vehicle would become available in “late 2002”—which may be too late for the market. Product development is one thing. Getting product produced while the market is still interested is entirely another.

There are several more vehicles that GM is showing off on the concept circuit (see “Automotive Observations” in this issue for more). To help drive these, and to develop new products in general, GM has created a group called the “Advanced Portfolio Exploration team” (APEx). According to its head, John Taylor, the team is meant to generate far more ideas than existed in the not-too-distant past, when the GM portfolio was the consequence of a “momentum thing that came from planning what would be the next-generation Impala or Grand Am. And as a result, GM took a lot of heat for having a bunch of cars that all looked pretty much the same. We had 23 mid-sized, three-box sedans. The mentality was that every brand needed to have one.” Which isn’t a good idea.

Now they are creating lots of ideas, some of which are essentially bookshelved in case the market becomes interested in that sort of style, with some preliminary engineering completed. This means that there are now designers and engineers involved in a give-and-take. Ron Edwards, powertrain and front compartment leader in GM’s Portfolio Development Center, admits, “If the engineers had their way, every vehicle would be ugly and functional. And if designers had their way, every vehicle would be gorgeous, but probably non-functional. We’re trying to meet in the middle somewhere.”

But what cannot be overlooked is that there must be the means by which these clever designs can actually hit the market long before the market is disinterested. Designs may be conceptual, but manufacturing is physical. If you can’t make it, you can’t sell it. Which is something to think about. 

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