GM Alpha Platform: All Things To All Enthusiasts?

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

First developed by Holden in 2004, GM’s Zeta platform now underpins vehicles as diverse as the Statesman/Lumina/G8/Caprice sedans, and the Chevy Camaro. Originally designed for full-sized , rear-drive Australian sedans, Zeta was downsized as far as it could be for the Camaro, which reviewers largely view as overweight and rather too ungainly for true sportscar status. Accordingly, GM has been developing a new rear-drive platform known as “Alpha,” which will form the basis of GM’s performance and luxury RWD models for the considerable future. Last we heard about Alpha was last August, when Bob Lutz swore there was no development underway of the platform he compared to BMW’s 1-/3-series. According to Motor Trend, work on the Alpha platform has begun… but there are already signs of trouble.

MT’s big scoop is that GM is “flexing” the Alpha platform. So what the hell does that mean in Ed Whitacre industry-novice-speak?

we’ve learned that the platform is being “protected” for a variety of engines, including four-cylinders, supercharged or turbocharged V-6s, and the small block V-8. By “protected,” we mean the bodies are designed to allow for proper fitting of the various engines, whether they are offered with all the engine choices or not. You don’t “close off” the design to make it impossible to add a different engine or transmission initially unplanned. While four-cylinder engines are smaller than sixes and eights, of course, the cars also must accommodate active engine mounts to account for less inherent refinement and smoothness in the fours.

On the surface this seems like a hefty dollop of awesome. By building flexibility into its new platform, GM will be able to offer cheap, efficient four-bangers in budget enthusiast models (the next-generation Camaro will be based on Alpha) and big V8 power in extreme V-series versions of the Alpha-platform Cadillac, known as the ATS , as well as the next-gen CTS which will also be based on Alpha. Scratch a little deeper though, and some of the problems with this strategy reveal themselves.

The major issue with making Alpha capable of a full engine range is the perennial bane of the Zeta platform, namely weight. In fact, weight concerns were the very reason Hyundai decided to ban V6s from its new Sonata sedan. As Hyundai NA president John Krafcik explains in this video, by not having to engineer V6 and four-cylinder hardpoints, Hyundai’s developers were able to trim significant amounts of weight and mass from the Sonata. And with recent breakthroughs in direct-injected, turbocharged engine technology, they’re giving up little to nothing for the added lightness.

The problem for GM is that it’s invested so much in its power-mad Cadillac V-Series badge that it can’t develop the platform that will underpin the next CTS-V without at least leaving room for a “breathed-on V6.” Which, as MT explains, means they might as well just make it capable of rocking a small-block V8 as well:

Breathed-on V-6s need engine bay accommodation for the blowers or turbos, and for intercoolers. This makes it easy to protect for a small block — overhead valves are more compact at the engine’s top than dual overhead cams with four valves per cylinder. Therefore, they fit more easily than the breathed-on sixes.

Meanwhile, there’s another problem:

These plans are fluid. GM is said to be in a quandary over the transmission designed to accommodate these cars. It’s developing an eight-speed automatic for its V-6s. The question is, will the eight-speed be designed for front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive?

Before you say, “both, of course,” be aware that new transmissions are very expensive. Adapting an eight-speed for both FWD and RWD can double the already healthy cost of doing it for just one configuration. And while BMW and Lexus eight-speed automatics so far serve only RWD-based cars, if GM decided to design it for transverse mounting, it would serve a much higher volume of cars and trucks.

If it designs the transmission for RWD to better compete with BMW and Lexus, it probably would have to add the transmission to trucks and big SUVs in order to get enough volume

Weight and expense problems? Trying to develop a single platform that’s capable of competitively executing every RWD application across several brands? Compromising mainstream variants in order to justify the insane engine requirements of low-volume halo versions? Does any of this sound like a new day for GM’s RWD reputation to you? Don’t get me wrong: a sub-Zeta RWD platform is a great idea (in Cadillac’s case, probably an existentially necessary one), and my inner enthusiast thrills at the idea of both budget RWD treats and tiny, loony supersedans. But the last thing I want to see is GM spending taxpayer money developing a platform that tries to fill too many niches, only to end up a dud of a compromised-to-death mess. Sure, platforms are becoming more flexible but so are engines. With the Pontiac Solstice GXP’s Ecotec DI four-pot already making 260 horsepower, and with downsized, direct-injection turbo engines poised to become the short-term future of the car industry (to say nothing of CAFE), GM could make the Alpha platform four-cylinder-only and make up the performance difference with the reduced curb weight and engine technology. Too bad it probably won’t.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Rnc Rnc on Apr 21, 2010

    I think the big reason why everyone else dropped OHV engines from thier line-up is related to development costs, they could afford to develope advanced, large displacement DOHC engines, where as GM couldn't so they just kept making incremental improvements to the OHV (also evidenced by the abandonment of the northstar program). Long term this puts you in a position of the improvements you make to one can't necessarily be transferred to the other, while for the rest the improvements they make to thier 1.4 can most likely be applied to thier 2.0, 3.5, 4.6 and 5.0. And through marketing people have been programmed to respond to acronyms like DOHC and VV.....

  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on May 11, 2010

    Why isn't GM making incremental improvements to their platforms rather than throwing the whole thing in the dumpster and starting over? That's what it sounds like to me. Why don't they create "the best" of their breed and apply it to their luxury cars and then in a generation or two let it trickle down to their bread and butter cars while introducing a new platform for their luxury brands? I'm still not convinced that a "new platform" is really that hard unless they are introducing new engines, new transmissions, new rear axles, and new suspension all at once. That doesn't seem very wise since they would have potential teething problems in all those systems leading to a 1st gen product that wouldn't be fit to purchase until the early adopters were done with all the recalls for you. Seems to me that GM needs to go on a refinement odyssey on what they already have. Refine the engineering and apply some good looks to everything - not just the halo cars. Does it cost that much more to design a good looking Aveo than a boring Aveo? Creases and curves, not expensive trim components. Absorb some of the cost and pass on some of the cost to the customer. I suppose this is what the LT versions are for. I guess the marketing department likes it when when a boring Aveo can shame you into a more expensive GM product that you're kids wouldn't be embarrassed to dropped off in front of school in. Frankly when I go shopping if one brand doesn't offer what I want then I'll just switch brands, not necessarily go up the corporate product order sheet. Engineering refinement could (not necessarily would) lead to better quality and better owner opinions of the GM products. The cost could be minimal if the improvements were made slowly and constantly over time much like VW did with their Beetle in the 60s. Add sound proofing. Tune the suspension a little. Improve the seats a little. Would these incremental improvements cost more than throwing out the whole product every few years and starting over?

  • 1995 SC That KIA truck is the ugliest truck I've ever seen
  • 1995 SC Probably not, but I hope they do
  • Carson D You've got to admire the perversity of the administrative state that it is impossible for a manufacturer to offer a three-liter, port-injected gas engine with a manual transmission in a 3,200-pound sedan returning 24-34 miles per gallon for hundreds of thousands of trouble-free miles, but it is perfectly fine for people with 179 funds to burn to buy SUVs that get 6-9 miles per gallon. Deregulate now.
  • Ajla I could see going for a used one. Most reviews seem to say it's a reasonably fun experience.
  • Theflyersfan BMW. Because at this extreme point of brand dilution and loss of identity...why not?