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GM Holden prepares for US export battle

Export potential: Holden may export the Commodore to the US and Canada as a Chevrolet SS in limited numbers.

Rampant dollar relegates Holden-built Chevrolet SS to niche export role – for now

8 May 2012

GM HOLDEN’S planned Chevrolet sports sedan export program to North America is expected to yield only small volumes, at least while the high Australian dollar is strangling the trans-Pacific vehicle export trade.

Although still to be officially confirmed, GM sources have indicated to GoAuto that the much-rumoured Commodore-based Chevrolet SS (SuperSport) is a goer for the United States and Canada.

However, with the landed cost in California likely to be higher than ideal, the vehicle is set to play only a niche role in Chevrolet’s model line-up.

Any big fillip for Holden exports was publicly ruled out by Holden chief financial officer George Kapitelli this week when he told journalists during the company’s 2011 financial results announcement: “While we see export continuing and having a role, we don’t expect export sales to significantly grow into the future.” The AUD-USD exchange rate was sitting at 1.02 cents today, and while that is down from its highs of about 1.08 in February, Holden will be hoping for further easing in the ‘Aussie’ against the ‘greenback’ between now and the start of shipments, probably next year.

Officially, Holden and its American parent company are keeping the announcement of the vehicle export program under wraps, although American magazines and blogs are awash with reports of the rear-drive V8 sedan – and potential Ute and Sportwagon – in Chevrolet showrooms from 2013 as a 2014 model.

The high-performance sedan is set to carry the bow-tie brand’s hopes in the 2013 NASCAR series, with the company saying the racecar – replacing the Chevrolet Impala as GM’s weapon of choice in America’s most popular form of motorsport – will wear an all-new nameplate.

GM last month registered the SS name with the US Patent and Trademark Office, while the US Autoblog reports that GM’s in-car satellite communication service, OnStar, has already listed a “2014 SS Performance” model on its list of compatible cars.

The Chevrolet SS will be shipped from Holden’s Elizabeth plant in South Australia to the US alongside the Holden-made Chevrolet Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle (PPV) based on the long-wheelbase Holden Caprice and fitted out for North American security forces.

Exchange rate pressures on the PPV export program have limited sales since deliveries started 12 months ago, with a total of 1422 Caprice PPVs registered in the US over the past year.

 center imageFrom top: Holden chief financial officer George Kapitelli, Chevrolet Caprice PPV and Pontiac G8.

However, the Caprice PPV notched up one of its best sales months in April, with 174 deliveries as Chevrolet filled outstanding orders from police forces in the US, equating to an annualised sales rate of about 2000 units.

Last year, Holden exported 12,068 vehicles to the US, Middle East, New Zealand, South Africa and Brazil, and while that represented a 54.3 per cent increase on 2010 levels, it was well short of 2007 when Holden shipped more than 36,000 units to overseas markets, including the Middle East.

Despite the prospect of small numbers, Holden and Chevrolet are pressing ahead with the civilian version of the Commodore, the Chevrolet SS, which effectively replaces the ill-fated Pontiac G8, a Commodore-based sedan that was skittled by the global financial crisis and GM’s slide into chapter 11 bankruptcy that signed the death warrant of the Pontiac brand.

Mr Kapitelli said domestic demand remained the priority for Holden.

“We are always looking for (export) opportunities,” he said. “That fact is the high Australian dollar makes it very difficult to realise those opportunities.

“It was pleasing that year on year, we were able to grow exports by above 50 per cent (in 2011), but in reality, we focus the business to predominantly focus on domestic demand.

“So while we see export continuing and having a role, we don’t expect export sales to significantly grow into the future.” US magazine Car and Driver says the Caprice SS due next year will ride on the current Holden-developed Zeta platform that already underpins the Commodore, Caprice and Canadian-built Chevrolet Camaro.

It says, however, that the Chevrolet SS will migrate to a new, lighter version of the platform when it arrives in 2015.

That lightweight chassis will also carry Holden’s new-generation VF Commodore and related Caprice for Australian customers, thanks to a light-weighting program funded in part by the Australian government under its now-defunct Green Car Innovation Fund.

Car and Driver suggests that production of the Chevrolet SS and Caprice PPV will then shift to North America, but Holden has officially ruled that out, saying North American production of any of these vehicles has never been considered.

Unconfirmed reports say the Chevrolet SS will be powered not by the Gen 4 6.0-litre V8 used in the Commodore SS but by the 6.2-litre LS3 V8 as fitted to Holden Special Vehicles’ ClubSport R8 and Maloo, as well as the Aussie-made UK export model, the Vauxhall VXR8.

Although power rating speculation varies, most reports say the Chevrolet SS will have at least 400 horsepower (298kW) – 28kW more than the Commodore SS.

Car and Driver speculates the engine will be same 317kW tune as the unit used in the Camaro SS muscle-car.

The magazine suggests a 3.6-litre V6 version will follow, producing “at least 320 horsepower” (227kW). This is about 17kW more than the current Commodore V6, but might be in line with an upgrade for the VF’s V6 due in 2014-15.

While the V6 is Australian-made, in Port Melbourne, the V8 is imported from North America, along with matching six-speed transmissions.

These imported components should help to mitigate the negative effects of the dollar exchange rate, as they cost less to import, reducing the overall cost.

The Chevrolet SS becomes Holden’s third attempt to carve an export niche in North American sales, following in the wheel tracks of the Monaro-based Pontiac GTO in 2004-05, and Pontiac G8 in 2007-08.

In the previous two outings, Holden had considerable support from GM vice-chairman Bob Lutz, who was an unabashed fan of the Australian product.

These days, Holden still has a couple of allies in GM head office, in the form of GM North America president Mark Reuss and GM vice-president of Chevrolet sales and service, Alan Batey. Both are former Holden chiefs.

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