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Commodore hybrid out of the Volt

Plugged-in: Holden's Commodore could become home to a new V6-hybrid drive system from Buick's new SUV. DIGITAL IMAGE: Chris Harris.

Holden VE hybrid hopes alive after GM announces plug-in V6 for new Buick SUV

11 Aug 2009

THE prospect of Holden introducing a hybrid version of its Australian-built Commodore early next decade, and increasing engine exports into China and elsewhere, were bolstered last week when parent General Motors announced it was preparing to launch an all-new Buick SUV with two hi-tech V6 powertrains.

Just days after Holden confirmed it would slot a new spark-ignition direct-injection (SIDI) offshoot of its Port Melbourne-built 3.6-litre V6 engine into the Commodore range from next month, GM revealed that a ‘Flex Fuel’ (E85 ethanol-compatible) plug-in hybrid version of the engine would be offered in the still-to-be-named Buick SUV – thought to be a resurrected Saturn Vue – in 2011.

13 center image Conventional-engine versions of the new Buick model will be launched some months ahead of the hybrid in late 2010, with a 3.0-litre SIDI V6 – the other engine to feature in the Commodore from next month – in service alongside a 2.4-litre direct-injection Ecotec four-cylinder petrol.

While this raises the prospect of new engine export opportunities (with the 3.0 V6) opening up for Holden through the Buick brand, to China in particular, GM’s renewed commitment to, and further development of, the two-mode hybrid powertrain – which Holden is known to have packaged for the VE Commodore – also strengthens the case for it to be used in the Australian range.

GM claimed last week that the five-seat Buick crossover had the potential to achieve double the fuel economy of comparably sized SUVs on short trips, thanks to the combination of a modified version of the two-mode system – engineered in conjunction with BMW, Daimler and Chrysler – and lithium-ion battery cells and charging technology developed for GM’s ‘Voltec’ system, which will debut in the Volt late next year and a Holden-badged model from 2012.

According to GM, the plug-in powertrain will combine the 3.6 Flex Fuel SIDI V6 with two “powerful” electric motors, “sophisticated” electronic controls and battery management systems, and a version of the Volt’s lithium-ion battery pack.

While Holden confirmed to GoAuto last week that it was preparing to introduce Flex Fuel to its SIDI V6 engines – becoming the first Australian car manufacturer to offer engines capable of running on E85 fuel – the company this week was unable to shed much light on the chances of the latest plug-in powertrain slotting into Commodore.

A spokesperson said he was unaware of any Australian connections in the hybrid engine’s development or manufacture here, but did not rule out the possibility of its application being broadened beyond Buick.

Holden engineers have worked extensively on the two-mode petrol-electric powertrain, as former chairman and managing director Denny Mooney revealed to GoAuto in 2007.

Although Holden had not confirmed a business case for a hybrid Commodore at that stage, Mr Mooney said the company had nonetheless completed the engineering work to package the powertrain into the large car and had built prototype vehicles to test it.

“We’re doing engineering work on a two-mode hybrid,” Mr Mooney said. “We’re doing the engineering work to package it, and we’re building some vehicles to do the development work.

“But to spend all that money and put it in production, you’ve got to be confident that you’ve got a reasonable business case. And I can tell you that a lot of hybrids don’t generate reasonable income.”

Thirteen months later, in May 2008, former GM Asia-Pacific vice-president Nick Reilly – who in the restructured GM is now president of international operations – said Holden would build a hybrid Commodore in Australia in the not-too-distant future.

“That (Commodore) could be one of the first hybrids you see and I would put a timeframe on that of a couple of years,” he said at the time. “Our strength in hybrids tends to be in larger vehicles – that’s where you will see them first.

“There is a limit to the amount of consumers who are going to buy a hybrid because they want to contribute to the environment. You have to make it economical for consumers and I think the government needs to help there.”

Holden chairman Mark Reuss later said that timeframe was unrealistic, which has proven correct. But come November 2008, Kevin Rudd announced the federal government’s $6.2 billion car plan, which includes $1.3 billion in assistance under the Green Car Innovation Fund.

The following month, Holden announced its small-car manufacturing program based on the Cruze/Volt Delta II architecture – something it had dismissed as speculation weeks earlier – and six months further down the track we saw the Volt’s hybrid system emerge in a Cruze engineering development mule. So there are also now strong indications that, before long, Holden will also build a small hybrid car in Australia.

As GoAuto reported last month, federal industry minister Kim Carr met with Mr Reilly on a recent trip to China and duly announced that Holden V6 engine exports to China would quadruple over the next four years as the car-maker – with government assistance – established stronger links in Asia under the newly created General Motors Company.

“We’ve seen part as a result of that conversation that engine exports from General Motors plants in Port Melbourne are likely to increase by 400 per cent over the next four years to move from a present 6000 volume through to 20,000 over a four-year period,” Senator Carr said.

“That one particular event demonstrates the opportunities there are here for the Australian automotive industry in the People’s Republic of China.”

Announcing the all-new five-seat Buick SUV at a management briefing seminar in the US last week, GM product development vice-chairman Tom Stephens said the hybrid version was expected to be the first commercially available SUV to feature plug-in technology.

According to GM, the powertrain will use the same manganese-spinel-based chemistry and polymer battery cells as the Volt. Containing half the energy of the Volt battery pack, the 8kWh battery will be packaged in a rectangular-shaped box under the cargo floor.

GM claims the battery can be fully recharged in four to five hours when connected to a 110-volt household electrical outlet. It also said that in early testing, the hybrid SUV was capable of electric-only propulsion for more than 10 miles (16km) at low speeds.

While the Volt offers up to 40 miles (64km) of all-electric, emissions-free motoring, drawing on a small petrol engine to extend its range, the Buick V6 hybrid will use a combination of electric and petrol engine power for its propulsion at any time, depending on the driving conditions.

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