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Americanised: GM product boss Bob Lutz introducing the VE Commodore-based Pontiac G8 at the Chicago motor show.

New ute and wagon export prospects emerge for Holden as America embraces the VE

14 Feb 2007

THE forthcoming VE Commodore utility is a strong chance to become Holden’s next export vehicle to the United States, as a spiritual successor for the venerable Chevrolet El Camino.

Furthermore, a medium-sized vehicle, which would become the next-generation Pontiac G6 – not to mention a reborn Holden Torana in Australia – has re-emerged as a likely scenario following the release of the VE Commodore-based Pontiac G8 at the Chicago Auto Show last week. As General Motors’ vice-chairman of global product development Bob Lutz unveiled the new G8 in the US, GM Holden chairman and managing director Denny Mooney announced the export deal and discussed other ways of leveraging the VE’s global rear-wheel drive architecture (formerly known as Zeta) and the company’s $1.2 billion investment in the vehicle program.

While he hosed down probable ute exports, Mr Mooney conceded there was potential for a ute and wagon to be sold in markets outside Australia. He did not name the US specifically.

"We have a left-hand drive ute in Detroit," he said, referring to a left-hook version of the HSV Maloo which has been under evaluation in the US since last year. "There has been interest and there is a high likelihood that that (wider ute exports) could happen.

"We are always working on export opportunities to fully utilise our operations to take advantage of the GM network around the world." If a ute export program went ahead it would most likely be sold as a Chevrolet-branded car, such as the (VZ Commodore-based) Chevy Lumina ute Holden currently exports to South Africa. Meanwhile, the smaller vehicle under consideration could emerge as a Pontiac G6 and, as GoAuto reported last year, an all-new Cadillac model that Bob Lutz referred to as a rival for the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3.

"We certainly have other product that could be well suited for some of these other brands," Mr Mooney told GoAuto last week. "(There are) lots of opportunities in the GM portfolio for us to try and take advantage of. My job is to continue to look around the world for opportunities for our products.

"I can tell you that we’re working out to 2009, 2010, 2011 product plans to make sure we do have the demand in order to keep our operations fully utilised." Before unveiling the G8 in Chicago, Mr Lutz said: "The G8 is the latest example of our revamped global product development organisation in action.

13 center imageLeft: South Africa's Chevrolet Lumina SS ute and Holden Torana TT36 concept car (below).

"We can talk all we want about producing cars and trucks more efficiently, better leveraging our global resources and making the company design-driven again, but until we get the vehicles on the road it’s all just that – namely, talk. "The ultimate goal of our new approach to product development is to put beautifully designed, powerful, relevant cars and trucks into the hands of consumers, and that’s exactly what we intend to do." The VE utility is expected to be unveiled in September, with the wagon following early next year. However, Holden has denied rumours the ute’s arrival was fast-tracked on the back of the prospect of US exports.

"It was always meant to be September," one executive told GoAuto.

The arrival of a small utility into the US market could be beneficial for GM as its traditional large pick-up truck market seeks to downsize to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

In the coming months, Holden is expected to announce further export deals for the Commodore, and possibly Statesman, into China and Korea.

Mr Mooney said the auto business had changed dramatically in recent years.

"This may be the most competitive market in the world with the number of brands and cars," he said. "We used to be able to dominate the market with one car line. There are more models to choose from and more model fragmentation." US media outlets have this week described production of the G8 moving from Australia to the US as a fait accompli. Among those who spoke directly with Mr Lutz after the car’s unveiling in Chicago, Automotive News reports that 30,000 G8s would be imported from Australia each year – in the short-term – and that production would shift to North America when volumes increased with this vehicle ... and possibly others based on the same platform.

"It is highly likely that as we move to higher volumes for the global rear-drive architecture, we will begin to produce (in North America)," Mr Lutz told Automotive News. "Importing from Australia at this point is a transitional phase. It permitted us to get the car quickly and for a minimum of investment." Back in Australia, Mr Mooney insisted that the export deal was part of a strategic initiative to keep Holden’s capacity fully utilised.

"We have to continue to seek opportunities to further improve our efficiency, our quality and our capabilities to make sure we can compete anywhere in the world," he said. In more than 50 years of exporting, Holden has sold more than 770,000 vehicles around the world. Its engine business also exports globally to China, Korea and Thailand, generating more than $570 million of exports.

With the G8, the US has the potential to be Holden’s largest export market after the Middle East. Mr Mooney said the G8 export program would be as long as the lifecycle of the VE Commodore.

"I expect we’ll have a long-term partnership because the Pontiac brand is a natural fit with our product," he said.

Mr Mooney said that to get the ideal investment levels needed to develop new cars "you’re better off having a partner".

"If Pontiac’s better off having a partner, we’re better off having a partner. You get more access to corporate capital to do what you want to do with the car," he said. "This will be good for us because there will be some technologies that will roll into this car that would have been more difficult for us to afford if we were just doing it on our own.

"But having somebody like Pontiac partnered with us, it gives us more energy inside the corporation to get some of that stuff approved. I talked about even next-generation ... I can guarantee you, the next-generation (VE) if Pontiac’s with us, it is a lot easier to get capital approved." The Chevrolet El Camino ute was sold in the US from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. It was based on the Chevelle passenger car and, later, the Malibu and Monte Carlo. The current Pontiac G6 is a front-drive vehicle based on the same platform (known as Epsilon) as the current-generation Chevy Malibu, Opel/Holden Vectra, Saab 9-3, Saturn Aura and Cadillac BLS. Perhaps not coincidentally, the GM vehicle line executive responsible for the Epsilon platform – Gene Stefanyshyn – later became the leader of the Zeta program.

Read more: Holden confirms US export deal for Commodore

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