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GM North America chief champions export Commodore

Not dead yet: The Holden-made Pontiac G8 might be gone, but Holden's VE might still make it in US showrooms.

Former Holden boss Reuss explores opportunities for VE’s return to US

12 Jan 2010


THE Holden Commodore could make a triumphant return to the United States with the backing of the new president of General Motors’ North American operation, Mark Reuss.

The former Holden chief, who has just stepped in to a position crucial to the future of the restructured GM operation, has raised the prospect of VE Commodore sedan re-entering the US market after the demise of the Pontiac brand forced the VE-based G8 to cut from the market last year.

And GM vice-chairman Bob Lutz has also indicated that a forthcoming facelifted version of the Australian long-wheelbase WM Caprice could join the Chevrolet range in the US.

Mr Reuss was at the Holden helm last April when the Pontiac G8 program, which was supposed to add 30,000 exports a year to Holden’s volume, was scrapped. He quickly laid the groundwork for the long wheelbase Statesman to be developed as a US police vehicle, the Chevrolet Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle, before returning to the US late last year.

He is not satisfied with the police-car program alone, despite the fact it is expected to add tens of thousands of vehicles a year to Holden’s Elizabeth plant production schedule, and is looking for other ways to sell Holden product in the US.

“There are other opportunities there,” he said at the Detroit motor show. “I don’t pretend to have them all explored yet either, and I don’t want to ruin them, but this is all about timing to get these successfully placed.” “Is there opportunity? Absolutely.”

13 center image From top: Pontiac ST ute concept, General Motors North America president Mark Reuss, Chevrolet Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle.

Mr Reuss indicated that the Pontiac G8 was unlikely to make a return with a different badge.

“The exact G8 car coming back – I don’t know that we’d do that because we would get crucified for not having some of the uniqueness for another brand designed into that car that we did for Pontiac and we designed a lot into that car for Pontiac,” he said.

“It wasn’t just a facelifted VE, it had colours, dials, ride and handling that was different and it was for the American market.” Mr Reuss was asked if there was a chance Holden could tailor it for another US brand.

“If we did something with VE, it would be the same approach with integrity of another brand,” he said.

Mr Reuss said he was also looking at an opportunity to bring the VE Ute to the US.

GM announced its intention to sell the Holden VE Ute as the Pontiac G8 ST at the 2007 New York Motor Show. US-specific development work, including engineering side airbags (which trickled down to Australian cars), was done, but the project was scrapped before the ST made it into showrooms.

Mr Reuss indicated that he had doubts about the original plan to market the Ute as a Pontiac.

“I thought we’d have a hard time putting Ute into Pontiac, but I know it was part of the broader strategy of doing that because they were both VE,” he said.

“There are reasons why you do that, but I think another brand with the Ute would be pretty attractive,” he said.

Asked if the potential brand for a US VE ute was GMC, Mr Reuss volunteered “or Chevrolet”, raising the prospect that the model could be sold with the El Camino nameplate if it were to make it Stateside.

Chevrolet is the most likely badge that would adorn the VE Commodore sedan if it were to return to the US and is also the preferred brand of GM Holden president Alan Batey.

Mr Reuss said the recent introduction of the more efficient direct-injection V6 models made the Commodore easier to re-introduce to the US.

“We didn’t have direct injection in these cars when we’re looking at this the first time,” he said.

“You have to look at this strategically and say, VE has got to be able to stand on its own on the world stage and I think now it is getting to be able to do that, from a fuel economy and you will see mass come out of the car, you will see all of that stuff,” he said.

“It only gets more attractive on an export basis.” So what went wrong with the G8 the first time? Mr Reuss said the vehicle suffered because Pontiac brand was “having a hard time”.

“Arguably we put the best product portfolios into some of these brands that had the most problems and couldn’t make it work. They had problems over many, many years,” he said.

When asked by a journalist prior to our interview if the G8 failure meant GM was not capable of selling good cars, Mr Reuss said: “My answer to that was, we could put good product into good brands and good channels and market it right.” When Mr Reuss mentioned opportunities for Holden in the US, he was quizzed whether than meant simply exporting current Holden products or developing new product, he said: “It’s both because like we are doing with the (Australian-developed) Camaro, we take the whole thing and do it in Australia and then take the team to Oshawa (Canada) to put it in to the plant to do (build) it.

“We can do that. The place (Australia) is full service … and we are going to leverage that.” Mr Batey later cautioned that while there were opportunities for the Commodore in the US, nothing was locked in.

“You have got to understand that we are at a very early stage in the new GM. There are a lot of things that have been going on in the last six or seven months,” he said.

“My job is to make sure that we really allow America to enjoy what we’ve got to offer.” The conversation has already started, Mr Batey said.

“It is too early to say what is definitely going to happen, all I can say is that there is absolutely ongoing discussion as you heard from Mark. He sees possibilities, we have to wrestle those down in the next few months, find out what we can do and when we can do it and come out appropriately with the right product plan,” he said.

One advantage of the Commodore is that all the US engineering had already been done for both the sedan and Ute, he said.

“If you want to come quickly into the market off of the Zeta platform, all of the homologation work, all of the safety work, a lot of that work has been done,” he said.

“You would still have work to do, depending on what you were to introduce but a lot of it is already done and that is a huge advantage.” GM vice-chairman Bob Lutz has also indicated a facelifted long-wheelbase WM Statesman/Caprice could also join the civilian Chevrolet range in the US.

“We are also giving active consideration that if we can pull that off and we have the next-generation Commodore in as a police vehicle, then we want to take a look at re-introducing a civil version, take a look at re-introducing a civil version as a high-end Chevrolet,” he said.

Mr Lutz likened the long-wheelbase car to its iconic Corvette sportscar.

“So there is a possibility of a high-end Chevrolet sedan that would be sold in limited numbers, kind of a premium Chevrolet high-performance sedan, kind of think of it as a four-door Corvette,” he said.

“The reason we say limited volume and relatively high prices, with US fuel economy legislation we just can’t afford to sell too many of them.” Despite his enthusiasm for the super efficient Volt plug-in hybrid, Mr Lutz is still a big fan of rear-drive V8s like the Statesman.

“When you get right down to it, the thrill of high performance driving is unmatched by anything that doesn’t have rear-wheel drive and bags of torque and a nice transmission,” he said.

“That’s why the Camaro feels so good, that’s why the Cadillac CTS-V feels so good because for a high-performance car it is the right configuration.” While the US offers Holden a fast track export program, Mr Batey is also looking at opportunities to introduce the Commodore into Europe.

“It took me all of about 15 minutes when (former GM Asia Pacific chief) Nick Reilly got appointed as the president of Europe to drop him a line, wish him all the best and say, ‘by the way ...’,” Mr Batey said.

“I’m not cooking anything here. It is really early stages, but answer your question, do I only see North America, no I don’t,” he said.

One of the issues that could make it more difficult and costly for the Commodore to be sold in Europe is that it would need to be made available with a diesel engine, which is not currently in the plan at Holden.

“If you access Europe, to be at all credible, you have got to have a diesel,” Mr Batey said.

Holden is still exporting vehicles to the Middle East, but has seen its sales slump through last year.

“The whole region has been through turmoil, the next year will be really tough,” he said.

Mr Batey said Holden wasn’t banking on any sales in the Middle East this year, but GM Middle East Operations president Mike Devereux told GoAuto that he expects to sell around 5000 Holdens this year, the same amount as 2009.

Mr Devereux said the retirement of a Ford rival this year could win Holden more volume.

“The other interesting opportunity for Holden long term is when the (Ford) Crown Victoria goes away,” he said.

The dumping of the Crown Victoria as a police car in the US was the trigger for GM to call on Holden to develop its long-wheelbase car as a police car there. Holden was already selling the car as a police vehicle in the Middle East, and demand could now rise, said Mr Devereux.

“In the Middle East when that (Crown Victoria) vehicle goes away there is a potential for police vehicles to get back up into that 8000 to 10,000 range (a year), but we don’t know,” he said.

GM has also moved in to the emerging Iraqi market, but there is currently no opportunity for Holden vehicles in the war-torn country.

Demand is for basic, previous generation GM Daewoo product, with price the main determining factor. Poor petrol quality, with an average RON rating of around 83, also means modern Holden vehicles would not be suitable yet.

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