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GM gets behind rear-wheel
drive

New cars will require investment of
millions

January 16, 2002

BY MARK PHELAN
DETROIT FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER

Years after steering its customers toward
front-wheel-drive vehicles, General Motors Corp.
is planning a new series of passenger cars with
traditional rear-wheel drive, Vice Chairman Robert
Lutz said.

The rear-wheel-drive series is slated for one or more
of GM's high-volume U.S. brands -- Chevrolet,
Pontiac and Buick.

GM will invest hundreds of millions of dollars to
develop the cars and either refit existing assembly
plants or build new ones to produce them.

The plan represents a major philosophical shift within
GM's engineering and sales organizations. The
world's largest automaker committed its high-volume
passenger-car programs to front-wheel drive decades
ago, spending vast amounts of time and money
developing the cars and convincing the American
public that front-wheel drive is safer than and
superior to rear-wheel drive.

"Over time, we will have a nice blend of some
architectures that remain front-wheel drive and other
architectures that go rear-wheel drive," Lutz said in
an interview at the North American International
Auto Show.

The new cars will be based on a less-costly,
higher-volume version of GM's new Sigma luxury
vehicle architecture, said Lutz, GM vice chairman for
product development and chairman of GM North
America.

The likely GM candidates to switch to rear-wheel
drive include the Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo,
Pontiac Grand Prix or Bonneville and Buick Century,
Regal or LeSabre. GM has also considered the Sigma
architecture as a basis for a Camaro or Firebird
replacement. The program would also likely spawn
the replacement for GM's successful Australian
sedan, the Holden Commodore.

Because rear-drive is associated with the classic
powerful American sedan and offers the potential to
sell image-building, high-performance models, the
program could reinvigorate GM's passenger-car
sales. GM traditionally dominated that market, but has
been losing ground for three decades.

"It's a gamble, unless they plan on a massive
rethinking of their product lines," said Jim Hall, vice
president for industry analysis at consultant
AutoPacific. "GM needs more rear-drive cars, but
not every division needs one. It must be based on
what's the right car for each division. There are
plenty of very happy Toyota Camry and Avalon
owners who don't know or care that their car is
front-wheel drive."

The Sigma platform is the foundation of the new
Cadillac CTS sport sedan. Its basic components and
dimensions -- the architecture, in GM development
parlance -- will spawn a wide range of future
Cadillacs, including the rear-drive replacement for the
Seville luxury sedan and an all-wheel-drive crossover
wagon based on the Cadillac Vizon concept car. All
of those cars will be assembled in GM's new Lansing
plant, which opened Jan. 9.

The upcoming Cadillac vehicles will take that plant to
its production capacity, meaning that any additional
models will have to come either from new assembly
plants or existing plants reconfigured to build the cars.

GM would probably need to sell around 200,000 of
the new rear-drive cars annually to justify the
investment needed to build a new plant, Hall said.
However, if the cars replace models GM already
builds, such an investment would be part of the
normal cost of doing business as GM replaces models
at the end of their life cycles.

Changing volume brands to rear-wheel drive will take
time, said Lutz, who was hired by GM Sept. 1 and
has been charged with revitalizing its product line.

The Sigma architecture was developed as the basis
for Cadillacs priced from the CTS's $29,990 to a
possible $60,000 flagship sedan, people close to the
program say. Lutz refers to the Cadillac architecture
as the "premium Sigma platform," while the
less-expensive cars will derive from what he called
the "high-volume Sigma platform."

Executives at GM's higher-volume brands have
previously expressed guarded interest in adding a
rear-wheel-drive sedan to their lineups. However,
they were concerned over whether their high-volume
brands could afford the sort of sophisticated
electronic traction and stability control systems that
Cadillac will use to make its rear-drive cars
manageable on snow and ice.

GM executives close to the Sigma program have said
that the architecture could be used for less-expensive
cars, but that sales projections would have to justify
at least another assembly plant's worth of production
before GM would approve any non-Cadillac cars
using the architecture.

"It gets very expensive to be the next GM division
that wants a Sigma product," one senior executive
said. "You have to be willing to commit to the cost of
a new plant."

It's very unlikely any existing GM assembly plant
could produce the high-volume Sigma cars without
being gutted and rebuilt.

The vehicles and the assembly process are intended
to be flexible enough that a single assembly line can
produce vehicles as different as the compact CTS,
full-size Seville and the Cadillac crossover wagon
based on the Vizon.

The difference for drivers

If the new high-volume rear-drive cars succeed, the
program could be the key to reversing decades of
eroding market share for GM. It could also change
the face of the U.S. auto industry, by forcing GM's
competition to respond with similar products.

The Chrysler Group has already committed to
rear-drive replacements for its full-size 300M and
LHS family of full-size sedans.

While Chrysler's rear-drive program is well
underway, GM's move could put Ford Motor Co. at
a competitive disadvantage. Ford's only North
American rear-drive sedans are the aging Mercury
Grand Marquis and Ford Crown Victoria, and the
expensive Lincoln LS and Town Car.

GM built its last North American full-size sedan in
1996, when it phased out the Chevrolet Caprice
Classic, Impala SS, Buick Roadmaster and Cadillac
DeVille. It began its move to front-drive to develop
smaller, more fuel-efficient cars following the 1970s
oil shortages. GM built 167,103 of those cars in their
last year of production.

Front-wheel drive better uses interior space, but it is
widely considered a compromise when used in big
cars. While it improves traction in slippery or wet
conditions, front-drive cars generally cannot handle as
much torque or horsepower as rear-drive, meaning
that a full-size car often feels underpowered.

New developments in electronic traction control and
stability control now allow automakers to make their
rear-drive cars more practical for snowy climates.

While those systems can still cost several hundred
dollars per car, suppliers and some GM engineers say
they believe the cost will fall to the point that they can
be offered on high-volume cars without a substantial
price increase. The same thing happened with
antilock brake systems, which began as $1,000-plus
options on luxury sedans.
 

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"The same thing happened with
antilock brake systems, which began as $1,000-plus
options on luxury sedans"

DC still charges this on most of its product line. ABS standard on a Chrysler, NO WAY.
 

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Not on Intrepid SE,Neon,Pt cruiser,Sebring. GM has ABS standard on even low end models like sunbird and all Grand prix models.
 
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