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Zeta stalled but rear-drive strategy continues

Rear Driven: Nothing has changed regarding Holden's development of rear-drive programs for GM.

Holden's role within GM's global rear-drive program is still vital

General Motors logo12 May 2005

THE rear-wheel drive program for General Motors in North America is not dead and nor is Holden’s role in it. So says Holden chairman and managing director, Denny Mooney, and executive director of engineering, Tony Hyde, in an exclusive interview with GoAuto.

Holden says it has a man on the ground in North America working on GM’s rear-wheel drive strategy and up to 10 Melbourne-based engineers working on global architecture programs with GM in North America.

"There was a particular sensitivity in Australia about some of the comments that came out of North America when they cancelled the Zeta-based products in the future portfolio," Mr Mooney said.

"That statement fundamentally said that the Zeta program had been cancelled but (GM global product boss) Bob Lutz has since said that rear-wheel drive is not dead in North America and that GM is continuing to work on alternatives.

"The reality is that we (Holden) are part of (the process) working on what those alternatives are going to be." Mr Mooney said that all that happened was that GM decided to place a greater priority on developing new-generation 4WD wagons, known as SUVs in the United States, and pick-ups ahead of the Zeta-based products.

"The reality is that our future plans were independent of what they were going to do in North America anyway. Our future was not riding on whether they did Zeta (or not)." - Denny Mooney

He said that Holden has engineers, including one "on the ground in the States", were working with North America "on what these future rear-wheel drive derivatives should be".

He said what they decided may or may not be based on the Zeta platform, which underpins the forthcoming VE Commodore.

Mr Mooney added that he was surprised by the reaction "that this was somehow bad for Holden".

"The reality is that our future plans were independent of what they were going to do in North America anyway. Our future was not riding on whether they did Zeta (or not)," he said.

Mr Hyde said the VE Commodore development was well under way when the Americans showed interest in the architecture and joined the program. At this point it became a global architecture.

"The car was three-quarters done when they joined and suddenly Zeta became a global architecture," he explained.

"They (GM in the US) had (designed) products off the architecture. Nothing changed from a domestic (Holden) point of view or for the engineers in this building who are still working away doing the Middle East, Korea, China and all the things we do today.

"What did change was that the global group (at Holden) had more interaction back and forth and we did some early work on safety compliance. But after that they (the US) began to take over their portion of the program themselves.

Holden remains the "keepers of the global architecture" but each market takes the basic vehicle platform, including powertrain and suspension, and engineers its own upper variant of the body.

"We (Holden) are still the keepers of the keys," Mr Hyde said. "This means that nothing can be changed on the architecture without our evaluation and acceptance, and if you do change some component on the architecture then everyone has to change to it.

"But the most sensible thing to do when designing a car is to have it done close to the plant in which it is going to be built because you have to work so closely with the manufacturing engineers to put it together." Mr Mooney said that it would take hundreds of engineers to design the body side structure and styling of the local US variants built on Zeta.

"The media in Australia had a perception that we were going to be doing that work at Holden. But you cannot have your engineers on one side of the world and all your engineers and suppliers and the assembly plant on the other side of the world." Mr Mooney said there was not a lot of benefit for Holden to have the Zeta platform being built in North America.

However, there was a potential for Holden to pick up design features built into American versions, the cost of which could be justified by the much higher build numbers in the North American market but not justified on smaller Australian build volumes.

Mr Hyde said that a feature on a US model that would be made in the tens of thousands could cost-effectively be built into a Caprice, for example, of which only a thousand are made.

Mr Hyde said that it was not long after the original announcement that GM had cancelled Zeta and turned those resources over to the new SUVs and trucks that the North Americans "were looking at rear-wheel drive again".

"They understood that even though they did need to focus on the trucks and SUVs they still have to concentrate on (rear drive)," he said. "They are not spending any money on it but they are spending intellectual power on it, that’s for sure."

Zeta never meant to be a global platform, reveals Holden boss

THE so-called Zeta architecture started life as a Commodore-based engineering program for the all-new architecture underpinning the VE series, which is due out next year. It was always intended to be unique to Australia and Holden’s export markets.

Holden chief Denny Mooney told GoAuto: "Our new VE was being designed long before it was ever called Zeta. It was never intended to be a global architecture.

"But then Bob Lutz came over here and the Pontiac GTO came along. As well, there was an increased interest in rear-wheel drive products (at GM) because rear drive is making a comeback in some parts of the world. In North America, the Cadillac has been very successful with rear-wheel drive products and Chrysler has resurrected some rear-wheel drive products with the 300.

"Ford has the new Mustang. BMW and Mercedes have always held the line of rear drive.

"So there was interest in doing future programs in North America that are rear-wheel drive. Given that GM has only two rear-drive architectures, Cadillac and Commodore, there was an increased focus on using the Commodore architecture for those programs," Mr Mooney said.

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