Wagoner Bullish on Holden Future

by Alexander Corne

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General Motors’ Australian cousin Holden becomes a more important member of the family last week, as GM started production of global V-6 engines at a greenfield site in Melbourne, Victoria.

GM CEO Rick Wagoner jetted in from China to attend the ceremony, which also bookends Peter Hanenberger’s GM career. The Holden CEO retires at year’s end, to be replaced by Denny Moonie.

Speaking at the commissioning ceremony, Mr. Wagoner explained the flexible nature of the ‘High Feature’ V-6 would allow it to be supplied to all corners of the GM world.

“It is one more example of Holden’s expanding role within GM,” he told TheCarConnection.

More to come

Holden has just shipped the first of 18,000 Pontiac GTO coupes to the U.S. as 2004 models, and Mr. Wagoner says there’s more to come from Holden, especially if the U.S. and Australia sign a bilateral free trade agreement within months, as seems possible.

“There is a lot to be gained on both sides if we can get this (free trade agreement) done. I have not followed it closely but in general I think I would open up more possibilities.

“There is potential for Holden to be a global source of large rear-wheel drive cars. The success of the export programs to the Middle East comes to mind, while the Monaro (Pontiac GTO) is a breakthrough. I certainly don’t rule out more (from Holden).

“Let’s get started with Monaro, we’ll see where it goes from there. Monaro is not extremely high volume, but an exciting move. It has obviously got us thinking about future potential, but we’re taking it one step at a time.

Niche vehicles on demand?

Wagoner gave some insight into how Holden might fit into the larger GM picture if trade barriers fall. “Holden offers very good local engineering capability, and there is a passion for the kind of vehicles here that there’s not a broad demand for around the world. But it is an important demand, as Holden can supply (niche) models that are image-setting, even if we can’t necessarily get high volume for this product in other parts of the world.”

Holden has a small one-ton utility based on the Commodore sedan from which the Monaro is also spun off. The Ute is tipped to be the next export from Australia — badged as a Chevrolet El Camino if product tsar Bob Lutz has his way — once a free trade agreement is signed, though Mr. Wagoner was less hot for Commodore sedans to flow to the U.S.

“If we work more closely on future platforms, it might be possible that niche vehicles come out of here and the more high volume models come (from the U.S.). Frankly it’s just economics, we can’t have facilities in the U.S. under-utilized and bring in from Australia.

“When you get to a certain amount of volume it probably doesn’t make sense to ship, you build locally if you have capacity.”

Wagoner said Holden would continue to supply complete vehicles to other GM divisions, as well as supplying the HFV6 engines to an even wider portfolio of GM brands and partners.

“We’re trying to manage our brands a little more consistently on a global basis. It is great to be able to use the Holden-produced product in other brands, in Chevrolet in the Middle East or Pontiac in the U.S.”

Engine plans

Holden HFV6 engine plantThe new global V-6 engine plant is a sister to the St. Catharine’s plant in Ontario that also produces the Gen III V-8 engine (which Holden fits to the Monaro/GTO).

The new Melbourne plant will stick to V-6 engines initially, though Peter Hanenberger has previously expressed a keenness to build V-8s again in Australia.

The HFV6 will be built in 2.8, 3.2, and 3.6-liter guises with expansion to 3.8 liters expected in 12 months when the engine makes its debut in Australian-market vehicles, namely the VZ generation Commodore.

The HFV6 for export to Buick for use in the Rendezvous built by GM in Mexico is a 24-valve DOHC unit with continuously variable camshaft phasing, but the Melbourne factory can offer a variety of configurations with fewer valves, multi-point or direct injection, as well as being compatible with future hybrid V-6 powerplants. It fits transverse front-wheel-drive, longitudinal rear-wheel-drive, and all-wheel drive applications.

GM remains tight-lipped about future HFV6 customers, though Wagoner delivered some broad hints.

“I think it will go to most of our brands over time. I’m not sure of the allocation between the Canadian plant and here, but it (HFV6) is a candidate for Opel over time and Cadillac.”

Industry sources in Australia suggest Saab will take a single-turbo version and Alfa Romeo would want one capable of installation into an all-wheel-drive platform

Regarding Alfa Romeo, Wagoner was circumspect: “Sure there’s been talk, but there are no specific plans to my knowledge. But that could all change tomorrow.

“This is our global engine family in the size category,” he said. “I guess any product might use it. Where production comes from depends on logistics. This engine will get broad-based application in parts of the world including, over time, China and Korea.

“The Asia Pacific (auto industry) is booming. There’s not a huge amount of V-6 demand, but enough to provide us with steady source of business, whether it’s in Korea with Daewoo or some of the other things coming out of China.

“Demand for upscale products has been surprising for us. There are a lot of opportunities.”

Not yet confirmed is a suggestion that Holden may supply Daewoo in Korea with long-wheelbase, Australian-made Commodore-based limousines fitted with the HFV6 in the medium term, to help fill out Daewoo’s product line in Asia.

In the domestic Australian market Holden currently installs an archaic two-valve 3.8-liter V-6 into Commodores, and it is possible the HFV6 fitted to next year’s VZ Commodore will have a two-valve, single-overhead-camshaft set-up for entry models, with high series adding more valves, cams, and cam-phasing technology.

The Melbourne factory should be able to build 900 engines a day or 240,000 engines a year within about twelve months, with potential for capacity to rise to 300,000 engines a year.

Holden invested $284 million (A$400 million) in the plant, which is expected to create 500 jobs.

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