Sue Baker talks to Daniel Nicholson, General Motors’ Executive Director of Product Engineering, Europe
Lanky American Dan Nicholson is General Motors’ Executive Director of Product Engineering, Europe. The 44-year-old powertrain expert has worked for GM in three continents, from Detroit via three years in China to his current job based in Russelsheim, Germany. As GM’s chief technical man this side of the Atlantic, he has huge responsibility for the way the latest crop of Vauxhall and Opel models are engineered and how they drive.
We intercepted him at he launch of the new Insignia in Scotland. With a calming view across the tranquil waters of Loch Lomond, we grilled him about what’s going on at GM and the changes coming in future models.
Q: How global a car is the Insignia, and where was its engineering design sourced?
A: This is our new global mid-size architecture, designed by the European team in Russelsheim. GM models around the world will be on the same architecture: Buick, Chevrolet and Saturn in the U.S., Opel, Vauxhall and Saab in Europe, Daewoo in Asia and Holden in Australia. The global chief engineer for the project is German, and the bulk of the work was done in our European engineering centres in Russelsheim, Germany and Trollhattan, Sweden. The engineering design team included Germans, Swedes, Brits, Americans, Koreans and Chinese, so it’s pretty international.
Q: How many different cars will there be and how similar will they be?
A: There will be a total of 17 vehicles and eight body styles. Global production will be a million vehicles a year, built at four plants in three regions. Outwardly the vehicles will be styled for their markets, but underneath most of the parts that the customer doesn’t see or touch are common.
Q: How long a lifespan will the Insignia have in its current form?
A: The plan is for it to run from model year 09 to model year 13.5.
Q: Where are your diesel engines designed and where are they made?
A: Our diesel engineering centre is in Turin, where our powertrain headquarters for Europe is based. It opened in 2005. Our diesel engines are manufactured in a number of places. Our 1.3 litre engines are produced in Poland as a joint venture with Fiat. The 1.7 litre engines are made in Tichy, Poland, as a joint venture with Isuzu. The 1.9 litre engines come from a wholly-owned GM plant in Germany, where some of our two-litre engines that are related to the 1.9 also come from. We also have two-litre engines manufactured in Korea.
Q: With a global company as big as GM, why the need for joint ventures?
A: Everyone in this business needs new technology at an increasing rate, but nobody is flush with cash to produce it, so it makes sense to collaborate. We have a history of partnering with others on diesel engine development and we are open to partnering on other projects in the future.
Q: What new diesel engines are you currently developing for future launch?
A: We are working on engine families in the 1.6 to two-litre class to eventually replace our existing portfolio. What we won’t do is repeat past GM mistakes where we relied exclusively on other companies for diesel competence. We will retain and grow our own diesel competence for GM globally and especially in Europe, with the centre of gravity for this in Europe at Turin and Russelsheim.
Q: You’re offering 128 and 158bhp diesels in the Insignia. Is there anything more powerful coming later?
A: Yes, there’s a 187bhp twin turbo coming. Because the Insignia is perceived as a nearpremium car, we want to offer a premium V6 diesel.
Q: What were the benchmark vehicles you aimed to beat with the Insignia?
A: The obvious ones, the Passat and Mondeo. They were our clear targets, and our objective was to know not where they are, but where they were going to be, and surpass them by a strong margin in respect of engineering criteria. We have what we believe is the best styling and we also have pricing, which in terms of value for money is favourable for Insignia.
Q: Didn’t you expect criticism for the way the rear roofline compromises back seat headroom?
A: We tried not to do trade-offs, we tried to do ‘ands’ not ‘ors’. We know some people would like a little more headroom in the back, but we made a conscious decision about how good looking the car is with that headroom. We’re happy with the decision.
Q: There’s no stop-start technology on the Insignia. Why not?
A: Not yet, but it will come. You will see it on certain powertrain combinations in due course. ecoFLEX models are coming at the end of next year. We believe stop-start will be on a very high percentage of vehicles across the industry within the next five years. Stop-start with diesel engines is a tricky thing from a regulated emissions standpoint. I’m not saying it’s not solvable, but it’s difficult. It’s easier to do in a small car but harder with larger diesels.
Q: Does GM have any plans to offer a DSG-style double clutch gearbox? If so, when?
A: We are well behind the game with this. Volkswagen has got that, Ford has got it. We have work to do to catch up. It is occupying a lot of my time. We have a gap, but be sure that we are going to fill it. I can tell you that we are actively working on designs for double clutch transmissions. It is a key technology that will be important for CO2 and fuel consumption activities, and it’s part of our future portfolio. It won’t be next year, but it is under active development.