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All-go for alt-fuel Holdens

Wagon-ho: Potential European exports could expediate a diesel VE Sportwagon.

Commodore to score alternative fuel systems to help future-proof sales and exports

11 Aug 2008

HOLDEN has embarked on a multi-pronged efficiency drive for the VE Commodore that will result in a much wider range of alternative fuel derivatives being offered to consumers over the next four years than expected.

Last week’s announcement of cheaper pricing for LPG dual-fuel Commodore – a move that takes it down to just $400 above the price of petrol with the government rebate – is the first of these new initiatives, which will eventually spawn ethanol, diesel, and probably hybrid versions of the Commodore and Statesman-based vehicles.

However, not all models will receive each fuel type, while some – like the hybrid powerplants, which as previously reported are no longer a certainty for Holden’s Australian-built vehicles – may only end up on a select few.

The second initiative follows in the next few months, with the introduction of Holden’s highly touted Active Fuel Management (AFM) system, which cuts half the cylinders on some V8 models to conserve fuel and cut emissions.

It is believed that the Calais V and Caprice will be the first recipients of AFM engines.

Speaking at the media launch of the Epica facelift and Rodeo light truck-replacing Colorado last week, Holden chairman and managing director Mark Reuss explained how the company has had to change its focus in order to develop longer-term solutions “using a wider range of alternative fuels and technologies”.

“We’re going to do all of them,” Mr Reuss said. “Every three or four months, we’re looking at new things we want to introduce on our range that will help fuel economy efficiency, fuel diversity, CO2 footprint improvements on our line-up – so we are going to have a very nice cadence of introduction of nice technology.

“Diesel, LPG … those are things you are going to see in all our range.” While some are still years away and will most probably be available initially only in higher-specification models like future Calais and Caprice evolutions, Mr Reuss stated that affordability was key in customers taking full advantage of the Commodore’s drive to greater efficiency.

13 center imageLeft: GM’s 2.9-litre DOHC 24-valve common-rail turbo-diesel engine was devised in collaboration with VM Motori of Italy.

“We believe you have to offer affordable solutions that recognise that people have different budgets,” he said, pointing to the fact that – with the government rebate – buying an LPG Commodore now costs $1500 less than it used to, and potentially offers greater savings than running a Toyota Corolla would.

“Not everyone can afford a several thousand dollar premium currently required by a hybrid,” he added.

Nurturing greater export appeal is also central to the alternative fuel developments, as Holden strives to send the VE program into Europe – probably on the back of its diesel engine program which is still in development.

While Mr Reuss remained tight-lipped about the existence of a diesel-powered Commodore at this stage, one Holden insider did reveal that the company could not advance its VE export program to Europe without one, making a diesel Commodore inevitable.

GM Asia Pacific president Nick Reilly also confirmed in May that a diesel-powered Commodore was a priority and scheduled for release in 2010.

Mr Reuss said he was pushing “strongly” to have the VE exported in greater numbers to Europe, extending the current program involving Vauxhall in the UK which sells small numbers of the HSV E-series under the VXR moniker.

Speculation suggests that the 2.9-litre V6 recently unveiled by VM Motori and destined for the Cadillac CTS in Europe next year will form the basis for the Commodore’s diesel engine family, particularly as GM is working to meld the Sigma architecture that underpins the CTS with the VE’s Zeta/Zeta II platform.

However, Mr Reuss has stated that the 2.9-litre V6 diesel is an expensive engine, that it is costly to clean up any large diesel engine for it to meet emissions targets, that engineering any diesel engine for the rear-wheel drive Commodore further adds to development costs and that – ultimately – a diesel Commodore may simply be out of reach for much of the car’s target market.

“Those aren’t cheap diesels,” he said. “And with prices right now where they are, how bad would we like to do a diesel Commodore? It’s not an easy question to answer.

“It makes sense for some people. We have a huge range of price on what we call Commodore. Some people are able to afford that with the diesel … (but) we have a lot more people who can afford some of the fuel diversification and fuel economy things that we can do very quickly (before diesel).” Meanwhile, nosediving SUV and truck sales in the US seem to have renewed interest in the VE Sportswagon making its way to North America, speeding the dual-fuel, ethanol and, ultimately, hybrid drivetrain development.

In fact, according to one insider, Holden is well advanced in devising the Commodore drivetrain to run on fuel mixed with up to 85 per cent ethanol (E85).

Still on the ethanol issue, Holden plans to leverage the V8 Supercar championship’s switch to pure ethanol in 2009.

This in not only to demonstrate the performance and reliability potential of ethanol, but to also educate Australians of its advantages, and blow away misconceptions, while simultaneously driving the implementation of the infrastructure needed in terms of access and supply.

To this end, Holden will shortly announce some big-name sponsors.

It is also keen for governmental support, along the lines of Sweden’s free inner-city parking for ethanol vehicles, for example.

“We’d like to see policies that would increase the take-up of ethanol-based cars,” Mr Reuss said. “But you know, we offer a flexible fuel solution on E85, meaning it will run on petrol and E85.” The Holden boss said that GM is reinventing every product on a global basis to better compete in each market. “It’s probably a turning point for the Australian motor industry,” he said.

“But I also think in the world automotive industry it’s a turning point as well. We’re at a crossroads here as a manufacturer.

“The future as we see it as really about choice, and not any one silver bullet here.” Mr Reuss said that the volatility of diesel prices over the past six months illustrates how quickly the landscape can change for manufacturers and consumers.

“Pinning all your hopes on a single technology would leave you pretty exposed in the current environment,” he said.

Holden wants to take a position of leadership in alternative fuel development in order to survive and prosper.

“We can choose to wait until all these things are solved, or we can really drive what we know is right from an energy-diversity standpoint.”

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