Mission Creep, Weight Problems, Compromise Haunt GM Alpha Platform
Yesterday we gave GM kudos for addressing its lingering vehicle weight issues by redesigning the head of its popular 3.6 liter V6, and shedding 13 lbs in the process. It was, we noted, the kind of news that showed GM is staying focused on the nitty-gritty of product development, sweating the details. But, according to a fascinating piece by GMInsideNews, new-product development at GM still has its issues. Specifically, Cadillac’s development of a new BMW 3-Series fighter, known as ATS after its “Alpha” Platform, has faced more than its fair share of what GMI calls “drama.”
Turf battles, unnecessary “wants” on checklists and ultimately a severe case of “Mission Creep” have created a vehicle that now needs a crash diet, according to GMI’s sources both within GM and at suppliers working on the Alpha/ATS program. For a vehicle that’s taking on an institution like the BMW Dreier (not to mention costing a billion dollars to develop), these are troubling signs indeed.
GMI starts with some history of the Apha program, it’s roots as “Kappa II” which Holden showed as the TT36 Torana Concept back in 2004, before development took a long hiatus. As originally intended, Alpha was to be lightweight and enthusiast-oriented, built only for four-cylinder engines. No wonder it went nowhere inside the RenCen until Cadillac adopted the platform as the basis of a forthcoming small sports sedan. But, as it turns out, Cadillac’s “wish list” for Alpha sowed the roots of its runaway complexity and bloat issues. Cadillac may have saved “Kappa II,” but it also killed off its original promise. Here’s how GMI tells the story:
…as Cadillac became involved with the Alpha program, a sense of deja vu came with it. Much like Cadillac’s initial involvement with the Sigma platform, Cadillac had a long wish-list for the new Alpha platform. This long list quickly turned a light, sporty platform on it’s head, including stops on development several times over the last few years.
Initially Alpha was going to be a four-cylinder only chassis for small premium cars, so naturally development focused on optimizing the Alpha platform for four-cylinder mills in a very light package. Well, Cadillac’s first condition was that Alpha be re-engineered to package a naturally aspirated V-6 engine – and that was non-negotiable. This about-face on engine selection would become the first of at least two engine requests that led to a re-engineering of the Alpha chassis to accommodate the new requirements. More changes (read: more mass and cost) were required for the addition of all-wheel drive.
What started out as a great handling, small RWD program, began it’s mission creep from being very focused to being all things to all people. And as it evolved, certain “hard-points” from previous development were locked in, even though the base program had transformed itself. For example, Alpha was designed with a very sophisticated multi-link front suspension with near perfect geometry for the car as it was developed at that point. That geometry was “locked in”. As the car grew and became heavier with more features and content, that original geometry was no longer optimal. Our sources tell us that GM is now attempting to mask this sub-optimal geometry with chassis tuning rather than doing the right thing and actually fix it.
Now, class, if you were developing a BMW 3-Series competitor, how important would the issues of weight and front suspension geometry be? Very important? Sort of important? Existentially important? Meanwhile, what about AWD? How important would that be? GMI may be reminded of the Sigma’s development, but GM’s history is rife with vehicles that started with a bold, simple vision, only to be re-engineered into mediocrity. A line of driver-oriented, four-cylinder-only, rear-drive small luxury cars is an intimidating step to make… but it could have been distinct, downright unique. And it would have easily handled the CAFE issue that Lutz worried about as ATS development was beginning in earnest in 2008. Heck, BMW is putting a three-banger in its next-gen Dreier… so why was Cadillac so worried about bigger engines and AWD, while glossing over the “locked-in” sub-optimal front suspension?
Regardless of why ATS development has taken the turn that it has, the effects are already clear.
According to sources familiar with the Alpha program both internally at GM and the supplier level, GM has made several other additions to the requirement list of Alpha beyond engines. Among the additions were: a new electronics system and aerodynamic shutters (similar to the Volt).
Each addition has caused another issue to engineer around, thus causing the Alpha program to exceed GM’s mass requirements for the car by nearly 500-pounds. It is unclear how heavy Alpha products will be, but every independent Alpha source GMI has communicated with has indicated that the final curb weight could push 4,000-pounds unless GM puts the program on a mass reduction plan before launch.
So, never mind about all that “GM is focused on weight gain” praise we were lavishing around yesterday. A BMW 335ix with AWD and an autobox only weighs 3,824 lbs… if Cadillac’s ATS comes in “pushing 4,000 lbs” it won’t be a Dreier-fighter, it will be a CTS with less interior room. Which, it turns out, is actually part of the problem.
Another issue the Alpha program has been strapped with is the addition of Alpha+ about halfway through development. The Alpha+ chassis is a larger variant of Alpha, intended for use with the next-generation Cadillac CTS. Naturally, Cadillac has another list of requirements for Alpha+, including the need to accommodate twin-turbo V-6 engines. This has added another layer of complexity to the Alpha program, driving up both costs and mass.
Maybe, just maybe, GM has worked some kind of magic with this Alpha platform that will yield equally exciting Camaros, ATS’s and CTS’s… but that’s a lot of work for one platform. Compromise is almost inevitable. As I wrote on the Alpha prorgam over a year ago now,
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.
But it seems that the “all things to all enthusiasts” approach has ruled Alpha platform development, and as a result, well… we’ve got signs of “not good” everywhere. GMI concludes:
Recently GMI has spoken with sources–both internal and supplier–that are working on the Alpha program. According to those sources the Alpha program has been a near constant stream of drama and problems for GM, all of which were compounded by the company’s June 2009 bankruptcy. Even today, as the program nears its final stages of development, problems are still being worked out of the Alpha cars.
GM is now struggling to reduce Alpha’s mass by a quarter-ton. One source indicated that GM is willing to throw all sorts of new composite technologies at the body, structure and powertrain to achieve that goal. Those materials are being thrown at both the Cadillac Alpha cars and the sixth-generation Camaro.
At last report the Cadillac ATS is still slated to launch in mid to late 2012 as a 2013 model-year vehicle.
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