By on May 17, 2011

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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60 Comments on “Mission Creep, Weight Problems, Compromise Haunt GM Alpha Platform...”

  • avatar

    Further evidence that, despite a few middling signs to the contrary, GM still can’t engineer its way out of a paper bag without first adding 200 lbs to it.

    I mean, for the love of all that is holy… 500 lbs of emergency weight reductions??? How is that supposed to help reliability and long-term durability?

  • avatar

    forget about engineering, the biggest problem with this car is the ridiculously stupid name. it’s a dud destined for the great GM scrap heap of failure. and GMI? c’mon Ed, that site is dominated by kids and company stooges. yeah there are a few folks with some sense but mostly it is a waste of time.

  • avatar

    Somebody needs to get the story of the Austin Maxi to the developmental team, like, soon. This is starting to sound like a parallel story. And automotive historians know what a success the Maxi was.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Wow! A car with the passenger volume of a 3-series that weighs 2 tons? Jeezus! Even 3800 lbs. for a real 3-series sounds porky to me.
    is that what it really takes to “keep us safe”? I have a hard time accepting that, when I think of the passenger capacity of the original 2002 (which I almost bought in 1973), which weighed, IIRC, about a ton.

    As for the story of this particular product, it very much resembles the stories that come out of the Pentagon about the development of a new weapons system — this process appears to be characteristic of a bureaucracy, which is what the Pentagon is and which, sadly, GM appears to continue to be, bankruptcy and taxpayer bailout notwithstanding.

    • 0 avatar


      All this reminds me of what GM did to Saturn

      Sounds like GM is as sclerotic as ever. A shame, because it would be really nice for them to have a genuine BMW fighter to go with all of the all things to all people cars they already have.

    • 0 avatar

      is that what it really takes to “keep us safe”?

      It’s also about NVH and dealing with all that extra power. The 1972 2002 was only 108bhp.

    • 0 avatar

      GM went through no bankruptcy. Bankruptcy requires massive reorganization, shedding of waste, major corporate culture changes and a leadership team committed to success.

      There was no GM bankruptcy.

  • avatar

    At some point GM will realize that if they want Cadillac to really be a peer to MB and BMW, they have to run it like those companies, with optimized platforms for each model line. It’s possible to do this within a larger company — VW does, after all. But apparently not everybody at GM has this clue.

    • 0 avatar

      “…optimized platforms for each model line.”

      Like the 5 that is a downsized 7? Or the E coupe that is a C underneath?

      Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you completely. I just don’t think the Germans have been following their former methods.

  • avatar

    The 3 is the 3. It’s a legendary nameplate with unmatched prestige. Whether you’re on board with the 3’s evolution (and it has bloated too) or not, you can’t argue that many 3s are sold simply because they’re 3s, not because someone shopped around and concluded it was objectively superior to all its competitors (I’m not saying it isn’t).

    Sometimes only a 3 will do. In that regard, the best BMW’s competitors can hope for is second-best, at least in sales. BMW doesn’t compromise with the 3-Series. There’s no shame in second to the 3. But Cadillac won’t get there if they compromise on the ATS. Infiniti, Lexus, Audi, and Mercedes will see to that.

    This is a war. Come hard or go home.

    • 0 avatar

      I approached my most recent car search with looking at small, used wagons with a stick… that meant an A4 or BMW’s 3. Audi had the better interior, but was more expensive and drove like a Toyota – a bit buzzy, but nothing special. The 3 felt differently.

      I’m no BMW snob, but they’ve got the driving feel locked down better than anyone else. Infiniti is close, but offered no wagon, which I was bummed about.

  • avatar

    I can’t think why anyone who could buy a 3 would buy an ATS if they were concerned about performance and precision. I’ll wager most most 3 series owners couldn’t care less if their cars were dialed back and bloated even more than they are with weight and electronic junk.

    A high strung 4 would be a nice idea, but doesn’t fit with the exclusiveness and price that lets the CTS-V sit with cars you typically associate with Cadillac. Turn that concept into a Chevy that costs less and isn’t weighted down (literally) by the Cadillac name and you’ll get enthusiasts. Will it make money? Will it show up the Camaro as a bloated waste of interior space? That’s another problem.

    • 0 avatar

      On the other hand, a torquey, boosted 4-cylinder, as in the Cobalt SS or the Saturn Sky Redline / Pontiac ??? (I forget) could work out very well in a luxury car.

      Pointing the engine the right way does a lot to tame the 4-cylinder. It gets the steering mostly isolated from the thrashy vibrations. And it removes torque steer entirely from the equation.

      Now, image is another problem. But maybe “green cred” could cancel out the “cylinder snobbery”?

      It seems to be a moot point, as GM is slowly killing the car’s entire concept – it’s the Death of a Thousand Sticky-notes!

    • 0 avatar

      The upcoming (F30) 3-series will mostly be 4-cyl, and I bet they’ll sell just fine. It’s all about the execution. If Cadillac can match that execution, they’ll find buyers.

  • avatar

    Sad, but not surprising.

  • avatar

    Is it really that hard to develop a sedan that doesn’t weight two tons?

    Apparently so.

    • 0 avatar

      Who cares? Is there some huge unmet need for loud, flimsy and dangerous cars?

      • 0 avatar

        Fuel consumption is directly related to weight, and we saw how many people ditched their gas hogs when fuel got above $4 a gallon, so yes there is a consumer desire to keep the weight down.

        Just because a car is light, doesn’t mean it’s a deathtrap. None of the cars I’ve ever owned have weighed more than 3500lbs and I haven’t been killed in any of them yet.

      • 0 avatar

        None of the cars I’ve ever owned have weighed more than 3500lbs and I haven’t been killed in any of them yet.

        That’s not a statistically valid argument.

        You also didn’t respond to the NHV and flimsiness question – are consumers crying out for a loud/tin can driving experience.

      • 0 avatar

        There is an unmet need for cars that maneuver well and that you can actually see out of.

        The gigantic blind spots that we get from our increasingly bulky cars certainly results in more otherwise-avoidable accidents.

        (Also, not everyone is in agreement that increased isolation from road conditions is an unambiguously good thing.)

      • 0 avatar

        Is a 335, C350, G37 loud, flimsy or dangerous?

      • 0 avatar

        Who cares? The people who went to schools that offered physics classes and/or are smart enough to notice how things behave in our universe.

  • avatar

    Having sat in on several of the front end packaging meetings in 2008, I can largely confirm that it’s a 15 lbs of stuff/5 lb bag problem.

    “We need to have this [specific content want].”

    “Okay. I need X x Y x Z volume here. A x B x C volume there, and D x E x F volume over there to give you that feature. Item 1 weighs Q pounds, item 2 weighs R pounds, item 3 weighs S pounds, and the harness and hardware to connect it all weighs T lbs. Oh, and add $GGGG to the cost.”

    “Well, it can’t take up any space, add any weight, or cost anything, but we need it.”

    [sotto voce]”What planet are you from, again?”[out loud]”We’re working on making it smaller, lighter, and cheaper, but you may have to pick only two of those three options.”

  • avatar

    this is a bummer to hear about. the platform doesn’t need AWD. it needs to weigh less than 3500# to be competitive. i understand why AWD architecture is complex (and imo unnecessary), but are engine compatibilities really that difficult to engineer? correct me if i’m wrong, but for the most part, it entails a different K-member, possible a different transmission mounting.

    i look at the fox platform from the 80s, and Ford was able to put in an inline four, a straight six, a v-6, and a v8. and it weighed 3000#. surely, platform technology and 30 years give GM a leg-up in creating a dynamic, small, rwd platform capable of multiple different engines???

    • 0 avatar

      but are engine compatibilities really that difficult to engineer?

      I would assume it is, as Hyundai was able to save a fortune by only offering the Sonata as a 4-cyl.

      • 0 avatar

        true. things i neglected to mention, that i’m sure are different, are wiring harnesses, (some) sensors, ECU (not necessarily), and hoses. but these are all small potatoes compared with platform engineering.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m skeptical of that. Hyundai cut the V6 because they could read coming oil prices. The same reason all of their competitors that still have a V6 on paper barely stocked them for 2011.

        Declaring scads of platform cost and weight savings in the press kit is relative to an alternate they knew they weren’t going to build and so didn’t spend the money to optimize.

      • 0 avatar


        In a transverse FWD car, the width of the engine becomes depth in the primary crumple zone. It seems quite possible that there are packaging and cost advantages to having a single, in-line engine configuration. It is less important in a longtitudinal, RWD platform, where a V6 might well have a positive effect on packaging and crumple space compared to an in-line 4.

    • 0 avatar

      No it is not that difficult but adds weight – eg additional width available for a V6, additional stiffness for a high-torque TTV6, etc

      This reported creep is funny in a way because the “TT36” of the Torana concept car stood for twin-turbo 3.6!

  • avatar

    The 3-series started out right 30+ years ago. The ISF started out as a light weight Toyota, and even the C-class started out light. Audi has managed to develop aluminum over the last 15 years or so. Even Infinity has long history of RWD whips. Cadillac went FWD for profits and last gen american shoppers. Lincoln, Acura, Volvo, and Chrysler don’t even bother. Cadillac has probably the least to work with, which is more of a challenge. I let go, and let live. Cadillac is not perfect, all companies have issues. Its a fact. I accept it and let live.

  • avatar

    GM should be letting Holden come up with a smaller RWD platform. Afterall, the Torana concept was their idea and their work and they arguably needs a driver-oriented, four-cylinder car more than any other part of GM back in 2004 and today.

    Holden’s existing structure (Zeta) from 2007 is substantially larger than Alpha but weighs the same as Alpha is going to end up weighing and doesn’t have the baked in compromises. It drives, rides and performs beautifully as it was intended to do.

    Fullsize, RWD, V6 and V8 cars are not going to get any better from GM than they already are from Holden. Abandoning them and their expertise is a massive mistake.

    • 0 avatar

      Ditto on the full-sized RWD platforms and please spread the development cost to Chevrolet in the US.

      With regards to Cadillac – the brand does not need a compact car.

      • 0 avatar

        If they want to take it international they do, there won’t be enough sales of CTS (& haven’t been) to support an operation in Europe, and the larger cars are playing in progressively smaller markets

  • avatar

    Mission creep is a common malady in technology. It’s an indication that the company doesn’t understand its customers, and that nobody has the guts or data to say “no”. I see it every day; too bad it’s continuing at GM.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Just how many people are expected to line up to buy four cylinder Cadillacs? Cadillac management was certainly correct in insisting on a six cylinder option.

    To another point, why worry about the BMW “3” as a competitor? People who want BMWs buy BMWs, they generally don’t cross shop.

    • 0 avatar

      Every 3 series owner or lessee I know cross shopped before buying or leasing. Granted, there are some who just know, but with Audi, Infiniti and Mercedes all vying for the same customer, it would be foolish to not look. So most people look.

  • avatar

    So, Cadillac hijacked a very focused (and exciting) platform, stretched and distorted it to please their marketing people, and have ended up with a product no one likes? And now they want to throw money at platinum bandaids to hit their 2012 launch date? Awesome! Give that management team the bonuses that they so richly deserve.

    And the end of the day, it would have been better and ultimately cheaper to develop a bespoke ATS platform and use the Alpha platform as a CAFE hedge. Also, why isn’t Holden doing all of GM’s sedan development (a la Ford Europe)?

  • avatar

    What a shame they didn’t build it as “Kappa II” — They saved Buick; they could have sold a lot of small RWD Buicks with 4-cylinders. Buick has a tradition (Reatta, even the Grand National) for the children of the 80s of making nice cars that look sporty and had engines that were not quite the run of the mill solution of the day. I’m sure they could have turboed the four and had a fun little car.

    Ah, the stillborn child that would have been a light RWD coupe with a four banger from GM… Didn’t Oldsmobile die on the dream of a small coupe with a four banger? I guess you can’t beat the Miata at its game.

    Cadillac is GM’s albatross.

    • 0 avatar

      GM does not want anyone to have Holdens they are far too good and makes NA efforts look like the shit they are NA cars are not exported the world buys its Chevvys from GMH in OZ Same as Ford they dare not imp[ort the Falcon nobody would then be stupid enuff ti buy Taurusts again and youd get to see what a POS the Crown Vics really are Ford did try selling Taurus in Aus &NZ but what a POS it wasnt a success still see the odd one rattling along waiting its turn at the wrecking yard mint 1s are cheap coz it still no good.

    • 0 avatar

      Correction (and this is based on the demise of GM’s other brands – Oldsmobile, Pontiac, etc.):

      Cadillac is GM’s NEW albatross.

      There, that’s much better…

  • avatar

    I’m not so sure I read this the same way as everyone else… So Cadillac was given a Kappa II platform from a 2004 concept and told in 2010 to use it to go create a 3 series fighter for 2013, but the expectation is to not make changes for the current market realities?

    I’m not going to argue that their weight creep is a huge issue, but the Koreans had the same issue and I expect GM to get it under control sooner than later.

    Are we sure that GMI isn’t just a little miffed that they got sucked into another Lutz dream car and now don’t like the “realities” of what Cadillac really needs to Sell Cars?

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      The problem is that Cadillac took what was intended to be a small/medium I4 RWD platform and turned it into a medium/large V6/8 RWD platform. Which they already had in the CTS.

    • 0 avatar

      Speaking of the Koreans,
      the Genesis V8 shows as being 4000lbs. This is a big car with a V8.

      Maybe Cadillac should let Daewoo engineer this one for them. Look how light the Cruze turned out – oops -bad example.

  • avatar

    Not only can we still expect a continuation of the typical wasteful and ineffectual global GM product development turf wars, we get to pay for them!
    Here’s the real question regarding the ATS:
    Q: If the Koreans develop the small cars, and Aussies develop the RWD cars and the Germans develop the mid-sizers what do the geniuses at the Warren Technical Center do?
    A: Nothing well, apparently.

    • 0 avatar

      I believe that not much car development goes on domestically in the GM world. There are a few exceptions – Cadillacs, Corvettes, and of course, pickups (but they’re not cars). Every new car GM introduces is preceded by an explanation that the chassis was developed in Germany(Opel) or Korea(former Daewoo). Was the Cruze developed in Michigan? Nope, try Korea. Was the Malibu developed in Michigan? Nope, try Russelheim. Was the Camaro developed in Michigan? Nope, try Australia.

      The other chassis “problem” that is not mentioned is that Caddy insisted upon a V6 application. BMW uses a I6 or I4 for their 3-series. I suspect a V6 chassis requires “adjustments” that add weight.

      The reputation of the 3-series was not made in a day. A single model from Cadillac won’t vault them into the 3-series race. It will take a number of years (of good automobiles) to be considered in the same league as the 3-series.

      • 0 avatar
        bumpy ii

        And the large CUVs. But yeah, GMNA only gets lead engineering on the stuff that sells nowhere else in any volume.

      • 0 avatar

        Koreans develop the small cars, and Aussies develop the RWD cars and the Germans develop the mid-sizers

        Never fear, there is an auto company that knows where to go for great engineers:

  • avatar

    Well, whatever you say about Lincoln’s problems, at least they haven’t been throwing a billion dollars away.

  • avatar

    I’ve always told the Camaro fans to be careful what they wish for in regards to swtiching the next model off Holden architecture (which was designed to be a muscle car) to this four/six cylinder Caddy. It looks like I was right.

    • 0 avatar

      The Holden architecture was designed as a 4 door sedan and since HSV can take a Holden and tune it to blow the doors off a M5 why cant Caddy are they so stupid in Detroit GM US can not build a car worth buying only stupid looking pickups that nobody wants, BMW much vaunted M3 was never that good in reality the originals were beaten on race tracks by lower powered Citroen BXs as they could overtake on corners inside BMWs

  • avatar

    Is it just me, or does the camo-bra on the development prototype near the end of the video make the car look like a rolling panda bear?

  • avatar

    The first “Dustbuster” GM minivans only weighed 3600-3700 lbs, and they seated 8.

    Hyundai is eating everybody’s lunch because it understands that you engineer the platform with the engine. The “common platform” mantra has gone too far if the platforms aren’t tailored to the mission.

    • 0 avatar

      You are on to something there. This Alpha platform is becoming a platform for everything – and hence heavier. “Jack of all trades – master of none”.
      This also indicates poor project management – also the inability to say “no” to additions that compromise the goal.

  • avatar

    And, yet…TTAC has ZERO problem with a 4500 pound Taurus. Or a 6000 pound F-150. Nope…they take a problem that is INDUSTRY WIDE (severely overweight vehicles) and turn it into a GM problem.

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