Cadillac's Alpha car key to future
General Motors has given the first indication that high performance V8 Holdens and HSVs will survive beyond the end of Australia'sl Commodore production in 2017.
Key to the future of iconic models such as the V8-powered Holden Commodore SS, HSV ClubSport and HSV GTS is the Cadillac brand that uses the rear-wheel-drive platform (codenamed Alpha) for its ATS sedan. It can be adapted to high performance applications across different brands, sizes and models within the General Motors portfolio. A V8 powered was floated only last week in a report from GM Detroit.
Whereas previously such models have been made primarily for Australia and based on the mainstream Commodore, the future high performance Holden family would be a global vehicle created specifically as a performance car, as reported by Drive last year.
However, the top-secret programme that's understood to be under evaluation within General Motors hinges on costs - specifically, ensuring the Cadillac architecture can be produced at a price that would ensure Chevrolet and Holden models can be priced competitively.
Speaking at the 2014 Detroit Motor Show, GM executive chief engineer David Leone opened the door to a future range of high-performance rear-drive models that could be exported to Australia to satisfy a healthy demand for muscle cars.
He emphatically stated that high-performance rear-wheel-drive applications would continue within GM longer term.
"Absolutely," he said, adding that there would "potentially" be opportunities for mainstream brands such as Holden and Chevrolet to also utilise such core architecture.
Leone hinted the Cadillac's rear-drive underpinnings would play a broader role within the General Motors world.
"If you're a performance enthusiast then rear-wheel-drive is the way to go and that's the place it will play [within General Motors future models], so you guys connect the dots as to where else you might use it," said Leone, who added that the platform currently underpinning some Cadillacs was perfectly suited to such applications.
However, whereas previously rear-drive was used to underpin larger and/or more powerful vehicles, Leone said it would be used primarily in high performance models.
His comments add weight to speculation that Holden could run a two-model strategy to replace the outgoing Commodore range. Rather than being based on a mainstream model such as the Commodore - as has been done for decades - performance models would use a more focused rear-drive layout and unique body.
That split-model strategy would allow engineers to improve the fuel efficiency and packaging of volume-selling Commodore models once the current generation is killed off with the end of local Holden manufacturing in 2017.
General Motors is expected to create a single large car for the world; it could be badged as a Chevrolet Impala for markets such as America but continue with the Commodore nameplate in Australia.
However, whereas Commodores or whatever GM will call its cars in that segment - all of which would be imported after 2017 - have traditionally used six-cylinder or V8 engines, the new mainstream model is expected to be exclusively powered by four-cylinder and hybrid drivetrains.
Given the Commodore and specially-produced performance models would use different bodies it's likely each would be branded and marketed separately; mainstream models could continue to be sold as the Commodore, for example, while high-performance rear-drive models could adopt a different name or simply drop the Commodore badging, to be called Holden SS, for example.
Leone said the architecture was flexible in its design, something that would allow it to be spread across a broad range of vehicles rather than requiring expensive development programmes for individual models, as has happened in the past.
"It is capable, it's scalable, we can go smaller and we can go larger and it's capable of doing that, so stay tuned," said Leone.
But it's the cost of producing such a platform (luxury cars often use more complex designs and/or more expensive materials) that could prove crucial to the success - or otherwise - of the project, which is understood to be under intense evaluation.
When questioned about the cost of the Cadillac platform Leone suggested that had been factored into future planning.
"It's premium, not expensive - there's a difference," said Leone, adding that some of the additional costs of lighter, more advanced platforms would become accepted in the industry.
Also crucial is finding enough global volume for the high performance models. Chevrolet recently began selling the Commodore in the US as its flagship sedan, called the SS.
The Australian-made model is also the face of Chevrolet's Nascar race campaign, something that suggests the brand is hoping the V8-powered model will be around for a long time.
As they have in the past, other markets, such as the Middle East, could also provide volumes to help justify the development of a standalone performance model.
In an era of more stringent emissions and fuel efficiency regulations Leone also implied there was life left in the V8 engine, despite it increasingly being replaced by V6 and four-cylinders.
"There will be [V8s] in our performance halo vehicles - there will always be blokes that want a V8," he said.
He admitted a smaller capacity V8 could be possible to meet future emissions regulations; many car makers are using turbochargers to downsize engines while maintaining performance and improving efficiency.
But he also praised the Chevrolet-sourced V8 engine used in various GM models, including the Commodore.
"Right now the 6.2 is a fantastic proposal . . . it's cost-effective, it's powerful, it moves that thing around like nobody's business."
The news will no doubt be welcomed by Holden's performance partner, HSV. Many assumed the end of local Commodore production would mean the end of Australia's most successful performance brand.
But on the day Holden announced it would cease local manufacturing HSV boss Phil Harding suggested the brand has a promising future and that the origin of the core cars it modifies was not important.
* Toby Hagon is Fairfax Australia's motoring editor.
-Fairfax News Australia