Glenn Brooks reports on production of the most advanced Australian-made car yet, soon to roll out at GM Holden’s Elizabeth plant in Adelaide.

Holden is one of only seven fully integrated GM global operations that have the ability to design and build vehicles for both a domestic market and export. Its headquarters at Fisherman’s Bend in Port Melbourne also houses a design studio, with a V6 petrol engine plant located nearby. The firm has just one vehicle plant, which is located in the Adelaide suburb of Elizabeth. The Holden Vehicle Operations (HVO) facility builds 45 model variants from two platforms, with six different body types being either fully manufactured or assembled.

The rear-wheel drive Commodore range of sedans, wagons and pick-ups, along with Caprice and Caprice V long wheelbase luxury sedans are built on a single line at Elizabeth. The same line assembles the front-wheel drive Cruze sedan and five-door hatchback. While the Commodore series big cars are fully manufactured, CKD Cruze kits are sourced from GM Korea’s Gunsan plant.

On-site operations at HVO include a press plant and metal assembly operation, body hardware facility, paint shop, plastics operation, body assembly and vehicle assembly operations. In January, ground was broken for a new body shop in anticipation of the next generation of vehicles to be built at the plant.

Global V6 engine production

The Global V6 Engine plant in Port Melbourne was opened only 10 years ago at a cost of A$400 million. At the time, that was GM’s single largest investment in Australia for more than 20 years. The facility manufactures engines for both the Commodore series and other models made in GM plants around the world. It can build 2.8, 3.0, 3.2 and 3.6-litre variants of the Global V6 family.

The powertrain plant employs 300 workers and exports engines to GM car plants in China, South Korea, Thailand and Germany. Holden is seeking new ways of utilising spare capacity, due to a production slump in recent months. This followed a slowdown in sales of the outgoing VE series Holden Commodore as Australian fl eet and retail customers learned of the existence of the forthcoming VF model.

The firm has also seen exports of V6 engines to China fall off after a government directive encouraged state fi rms to shy away from buying foreign brand minivans in favour of local makes. Until recently, GM and its partner SAIC had been taking some 15,000 Holden engines annually, fitting them to the Buick GL8 minivans that it builds in Shenyang.

While the Commodore is not available with anything smaller than a V6, Holden currently imports four-cylinder engines for its locally assembled Cruze sedan and hatchback range. In 2012, that meant just under 30,000 engines were shipped in from GM powertrain plants in Korea and Europe. Nothing has been announced but if, as rumoured, the VJ Commodore for 2017 turns out to be powered by a four-cylinder engine, that raises questions for the Port Melbourne powertrain plant. Could that mean a new, smaller engine family being made there to replace the Global V6? For now at least, Holden isn’t saying.

Vehicle production at Elizabeth into the 2020s

GM is in the midst of a A$1bn (US$1.03bn) investment programme for Holden, which includes a A$225m contribution from Australia’s federal government in Canberra, as well as A$50m from the state government of South Australia.

Much of the money being provided by GM and its governmen partners will be used to upgrade facilities at production of the next Cruze and the Commodore replacement, which will join it from 2017. Very little has been publicly announced about the second of these future vehicle programmes, though Holden MD Mike Devereux has confirmed that the company has no intention of killing off the Commodore model name.

“In the immortal words of the late Steve Jobs, a lot of folks have been speculating about whether this is the last Commodore,” Devereux stated as he revealed the new VF model in February. “Well, I can categorically tell you that we have already begun working on the Commodore that comes after this one”.

The replacement for the big rear-wheel-drive vehicle series will be launched in late 2016 or early 2017. While the company says the nameplate will be retained due to its long history, the car itself is expected to be somewhat smaller. This has led to suggestions that the VJ-series Commodore will be closely based on the successor to the Chevrolet Malibu. Holden has recently introduced the current Malibu – an import from GM Korea – fitting it with a unique grille to accompany its Holden badging.

Unlike today’s Commodore, the Malibu is front-wheel– drive and comes with a choice of four-cylinder engines, one of which is a diesel. This is likely to again be the case with the successor model. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that car will be the second future model that MD Mike Devereux says will be made at Elizabeth. It could be a different vehicle entirely, possibly even a version of the next generation Opel Insignia.

High-tech components for new VF Commodore

The VF, which can rightly lay claim to being the most advanced car to be built in Australia, is also the first locally made vehicle to feature extensive use of aluminium in its construction. Bonnet and boot lid pressings and other selected components are constructed from the material, leading to a claimed weight saving of 50kg. The body itself is said to be far more aerodynamic than the outgoing VE Commodore, another factor in the quest for reduced fuel consumption.

Bearing in mind the high cost of labour in Australia, it comes as no surprise that the new car’s interior has fewer parts and therefore should be less time consuming to assemble. The reduction in the number of separate components will also mean better interior quality and presentation the company believes. Formerly, there had been three instrument panel designs depending on model grade, each assembled together in a module. For the VF, there is now just one module, with variations being made by trim materials and colouring.

Another way in which Holden has cut both cost and complexity of assembly is by phasing out the dashboard colour blocking which features in the outgoing VE series car. Another component that has been ditched is the manual parking brake, replaced by an electric switch, while the window buttons and door lock control have been shifted from a panel in the centre console to a more logical position on the driver’s door.

What Holden calls a ‘Global A’ electronics platform underpins the vehicle’s systems, allowing new technologies such as a rear cross-traffi c detection monitor; collision alert; lane departure warnings; and a full-colour head-up display. Self-parking, another novelty for an Australian-made car, comes as standard. The adoption of the automatic parking system is possible thanks to the design to fit the VF with electrically assisted power steering. "This is a technologically advanced car... the most advanced car conceived and created in this country," Holden’s Mike Devereux proudly stated at the media launch of the new model.

Decoding GM’s architectures

While the current Commodore series is underpinned by GM’s Sigma Zeta platform, this long-lived rear-wheel-drive architecture is already being phased out in other parts of the GM world. The more modern Alpha rear- and all-wheel drive platform debuted in 2012 with the Cadillac ATS sedan. Other Alpha architecture models to come include the next Cadillac CTS (2014) and Chevrolet Camaro (2015), each of which will be built alongside the ATS at GM’s Grand River plant at Lansing, Michigan.

If Alpha seems a long shot as the basis for the 2017 VJ Commodore, what could instead underpin it? The timing announced by Holden reveals some clues. Multiple global models that use the front-wheel drive Epsilon 2 architecture are due to be replaced from 2016. These include the Opel/ Vauxhall Insignia, which will use a new GM-developed platform as D-segment models are not part of PSA and GM Europe’s alliance.

Other cars that will share GM’s new mid-sized global vehicle architecture include the replacements for the Buick Regal, Buick LaCrosse and Chevrolet Malibu sedans. In that context, a new FWD/AWD platform, off which Holden could build one or even two new family-sized cars, would be a perfect fit for both the Australian market and for the Elizabeth plant. The timing would also be right, coming just months after the first vehicles on this platform are due to enter production at GM plants in North America and Asia.