The Automotive Amanojaku

This is where you'll find news, random car-related thoughts and personal views from a rabid car nut. "Amanojaku" is Japanese slang that means "person who is deliberately contradictory". I've always found myself drawn to the less appreciated car makes - the "underdogs" if you will. Suzuki, Pontiac, GM Daewoo and Holden, are among my favorite brands to watch and comment on. Let me hear your thoughts!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

GM's Hybrids, Hydrogen and Plug-ins are Great But...

Opel's DCVCP 1.8L Engine

The GM Hybrids, Hydrogen and Plug-ins are Great But...

What GM Really Needs is A Highly Fuel-Efficient 4-Cylinder Engine For the North American Market

Commentary by Ming'


On Autoline Detroit this morning while discussing the new GM Volt concept, one of the panel members pointed out a glaring flaw in the potentially revolutionary 100+ mile per gallon "plug-in hybrid" car. To paraphrase: "The Detroit Automakers have a tendency to respond to social concerns and trends with non-functioning (or prohibitively expensive) concept cars that wow the public, but then go back to pushing muscle cars (and SUVs)."

Sadly, if you're someone in the market for a GM car, and not willing to pay the price for a hybrid, you'd probably come to the same conclusion. Affordable hydrogen technology always seems pushed out to "10 years away", and the Volt depends on battery technology that may or may not be here in an affordable package within that time-frame.

Let me praise GM first for their Saturn Green Line efforts of bringing hybrid technology to the market for a good price. And the "mild hybrid" products like the upcoming Malibu Hybrid and the "Two-Mode" truck/SUV hybrids from GM will surely please a segment of the buying public. But what GM in the U.S. really lacks is far more simple than that, and when a buyer goes out to Yahoo! Autos, Edmunds, or to compare what are normally considered "fuel efficient" vehicles, GM more often than not will lose out. The current Toyota Corolla gets 32/41 MPG. The Cobalt base model? Only 25/34 mpg. That's a significant difference, one that even Domestic loyalists might find hard to dismiss.

Yes, GM has relatively fuel-efficient vehicles in the large car and truck segments. Their SUVs are among the most fuel efficient at the large end of the scale, and the Impala is deceptively fuel efficient given its large displacement and respectably powerful 3.5L OHV V6. Competitors of GM (especially the "2nd tier" automakers) often lag here, but the problem is that people who buy these sorts of larger vehicles aren't usually looking at fuel economy as their first priority.

And in the end, hybrids, even so-called mild hybrids either price themselves out of the "affordable" market, or appeal to those who love the technology and will want something more robust and techy than "mild" will deliver. Either that or they'll want something that looks like a hybrid so they can wear their environmentalism or tech-savvy on their sleeves, not a car that looks like a regular Malibu. The unassuming Accord hybrid's lackluster sales seem to prove this. When you get down to it, the buying public in search of "fuel efficient" cars is going to look to the small cars in an automaker's lineup, and look at the MPG numbers on the sticker first. Horsepower is a great bonus, as is interior space. But the sticker price and fuel economy have to come first. If, like in the case of the Hyundais, KIAs, or Suzuki Forenza, the sticker price is low enough and a long list of standard features are packed-in to that low price, fuel efficiency can be pushed down to second on the list of priorities.

But if the "equipped" sticker price is mid-pack and not remarkably low for its class (think Cobalt/G5), then fuel economy will raise in importance. If you can't save on the sticker, OR on the fuel economy, then all you have left is styling or other gimmicks to lure in the customer (think HHR). As of now, GM does not have a 4-cylinder in the U.S. market that delivers superb fuel economy for a compact or subcompact car. The Ecotec 2.0L engine lags behind the competition in most regards, and while the 2.4LVVT engine is a great performance 4-banger, predictably, it does not deliver eye-popping MPG numbers. The Chevrolet Aveo, often touted by GM for being a fuel efficient car, is not particularly fuel efficient in its class. Running with an updated version of an old pre-Ecotec GM Family engine, the Aveo delivers unimpressive MPG (27/37 MPG) compared to cars like the 34/40 MPG Toyota Yaris - a car that does not cost much more than the Aveo that does not have to deal with the stigma in some markets (California, for instance) of being either a Korean car or a Chevy.

The thing that concerns me the most about this situation is that while we hear a lot from GM about the aforementioned concept cars, future plans, and SUV and other mild-hybrids, there is precious little news about GM or talk from the bold "Americans still want SUVs" Mr. Bob Lutz concerning introducing a class-leading fuel efficient 4-cylinder engine much needed in the base Cobalt and even the Aveo if GMDAT can make that happen.

On a more personal note, while car shopping for myself, I noted that the HHR, while a well-styled car if you like retro, and something close to the wagon I want, has very similar fuel economy, even with the base 2.2L engine, to the 3.5L OHV V6 powered Malibu Maxx! So what can GM do to change this reality of having less fuel efficient small cars than its top competitors?

If you're wondering if this is a pointless rant session of mine, I hate to disappoint you, because I'm going to suggest something that GM may or may not already have in the works behind the scenes. If GM has made plans to broadly introduce this engine in all of its small cars, I am unaware of it at this time. But what I think needs to happen is for GM USA (and GM Daewoo) to get another injection of Opel technology. Diesels might be a great solution for saving fuel if they weren't so expensive to build to U.S. regulatory specifications. So let me push aside that idea for something that still falls under the category of "affordable".

In March of 2005 GM Opel introduced a new variant of the 1.8L Family 1 Engine often referred to as the "DCVCP" (Double Continuous Variable Cam Phasing) Ecotec. While the fuel economy only improved 4% from its predecessor, the power jumped 14%, and the engine was rather fuel efficient to begin with. It would seem to be the perfect replacement for the 2.2L Ecotec that while introduced only a few years ago, already seems almost obsolete in the face of relentless competition. What I'd like to see is this new Opel engine replace the 2.2L Ecotec across the board wherever the 2.2L has been used. While I can't say what kind of fuel economy it would have when put into U.S. applications, I'm relatively certain that it could do better than the current Ecotec base model. If not, and if the MPG gains would be only minimal, then there are other options out there in the GM world.

GM do Brazil offers the C18XE 1.8 L SOHC FlexPower engine that can also run on Ethanol. Perhaps GM could even take the supercharger off of its 2.0L Ecotec and engage in some tweaking for a positive effect.

Regardless of how GM accomplishes it, GM North America needs small engines that deliver impressive fuel economy in its compact and subcompact cars far more than it needs more PR spin, Vaporware, or promises of a bold future with Hydrogen and Plug-In Hybrids. And while they're at it, GM should do what it can to bring GM Daewoo - its chief small-car player - closer into the GM global fold, and offer them access to improved and recent engines designed by Opel. GMDAT should not have to rely on old-technology - and neither should Holden continue building the old Holden Family engines (used in the GMDAT build Chevrolet Optra, Holden Viva and Suzuki Forenza) that are far past their prime. GM needs a global effort to continuously deliver the best small engine technology that it can to its many arms around the world and not let any of them slip into irrelevance or antiquity.

Until GM makes a bold move to do this, buyers in the U.S. will continue to see the General's small cars as lagging in technology and fuel efficiency. Do it, Detroit, work with Opel and GMDAT and change that perception. Introducing better 4-cylinder engines is not a huge step forward technologically like introducing Hydrogen-powered cars or fancy battery powered cars, but it doesn't depend on other factors to get off of the ground. Its something that CAN be done, and done right now, and I can only hope that you are already working on getting those new engines here as quickly as possible.


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