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A greener Commodore coming

Experts say hybrid-engine technology could be available in the Holden Commodore sooner than we think. Recent important developments include:

- General Motors in the US announcing it has put a hold on future rear-wheel-drive planning while moving ahead with development of hybrid and electric strategies for its global brands that include GM Holden;

- GM Holden confirming it is working on a diesel option for Commodore;

- A leading manufacturing expert warning Australian carmakers at a key conference this week they need to expand their focus to smaller and greener cars to survive;

- Most overseas car companies expanding their development into alternate-powered cars;

- The European Commission unveiling a strategy to make car companies cut carbon dioxide emissions in all new vehicles by 2012, and;

- The US Supreme Court ruling that carbon dioxide emissions from cars are subject to the same tough standards as other emissions.

GM vice-chairman Bob Lutz says the company is putting a hold on rear-wheel drive projects. “We've pushed the pause button. It's no longer full-speed ahead,” he says.

Two of the most important RWD cars in the works are the Chevy Camaro sports coupe, due back late in 2008, and the full-size, RWD replacement for the Chevy Impala sedan for 2009. Both are expected to be huge sellers in the US and contribute profits to GM, which is still burdened by financial woes.

“It's too late to stop Camaro, but anything after that is questionable or on the bubble,” Lutz says.

The RWD cars will be larger and heavier than front-wheel-drive cars so it comes down to the matter of fuel economy. Or, as Lutz says: “We don't know how to get 30 per cent better mileage (from RWD cars).”

That 30 per cent bogey arises from a proposal by the US Government to raise corporate average fuel economy standards by 4 per cent a year so cars will have to average 34mpg (6.9L/100km) by 2017, up from 27.5mpg (8.5L/100km) today. On top of that, the Supreme Court ruled last week that the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate carbon dioxide expelled by cars, a gas that contributes to global warming. The EPA doesn't do so now.

GM Holden boss Denny Mooney has confirmed development for a possible diesel option for Commodore but denies a bespoke hybrid development for Holden.

Following reports this week that Holden engineers were working on a hybrid system, the company says the development engineering is a GM global program based in North America, driven by a joint venture with DaimlerChrysler and BMW.

“We're (GM) doing engineering work on a two-mode hybrid,” Mooney says. “It's our joint venture with DaimlerChrysler and BMW.”

Mooney says the expense of hybrid development puts it outside the capacity of individual brands within GM but a global GM hybrid or electric strategy could flow to Australia.

Holden has dabbled in hybrid and electric technology with the ECOmmodore which highlighted the use of supercapacitors and lead acid batteries. The work, a joint venture with the CSIRO, centred mainly on maximising stored electric power.

In Melbourne this week a leading manufacturing expert and director of the US Centre for Automotive Research, Jay Baron, urged local makers to embrace change.

He told the Society of Automotive Engineers conference any failure to reflect the needs of a rapidly changing global market was risky.

Although supportive of Australia's carmaking business and its export efforts of both cars and intellectual property, he believes hybrids and smaller cars represent the new growth areas for the next 10 years.

Baron was also surprised Australia, with a market of less than one million new cars a year, could sustain four major car manufacturers.

“A state-of-the-art high-volume manufacturing plant today has to produce somewhere over 200,000 cars a year,” he says.

Locally, Ford, GM Holden, Toyota and Mitsubishi are well under this figure. “If you're not producing that volume, then you are a scaled-down niche plant and being in a niche market right now is risky,” he says.

“Rear-wheel drive cars are slowly becoming niche markets. In Australia the question is: Are there enough niche markets out there so that you can supply the world with rear-wheel drive cars?

“It's a little bit of a risky future not to be looking at where the growth is and the growth is small, efficient cars and new technologies.

“There is a whole family of hybrids coming out that could totally change the market again as they slowly scale up.”

The change in car buying values and habits is part of a broader cultural shift in the industry.

“In North America we're moving away from sports utility vehicles to CUVs — crossover utility vehicles — and higher mileage vehicles,” he says. “In Australia you're transitioning from rear-wheel drive to small front-wheel drive cars, which tend to be more imported.

“So you're experiencing similar problems to those we're having.”

Baron was the keynote speaker at the conference, which also featured Holden's executive director of engineering, Tony Hyde, Toyota's vice-president of the Toyota Technical Centre in Melbourne, Max Gillard, and the design director of Ford Asia-Pacific, Scott Strong.

Toyota spokesman, David Buttner says the company has no plans to produce smaller cars in Australia, but the development of future hybrids is an important factor for the company, “We are continuously evaluating the opportunities to introduce hybrids into Australia, we are working with all stakeholders including the government to facilitate this development,” he says.

Ford spokeswoman, Sinead McAlary says the company is constantly examining ways to improve all aspects, such as fuel economy, but a complete shift in focus may not be possible.

“To say the Australian industry should develop small cars or hybrids is not necessarily very practical,” she says. “The Australian market is also not ready for the Australian car industry to be producing hybrids.”

McAlary says hybrids only accounted for around 3000 sales last year, which is less than the number of Falcons that Ford produces in one month.

She says the technology is expensive and people have to be prepared to buy the vehicles, before manufacturers can change the way they operate. “The market has to be ready for it,” she says.

And while car companies feed into the new technology that's already being developed in the US and Europe, McAlary says “our industry is too small for us to develop it by ourselves”.

Toyota with the Prius, Honda with the Civic and Lexus with the RX440h and GS450h are the only three companies selling hybrids in Australia, but many manufacturers have displayed concept vehicles.

One of the newest overseas manufacturers to create a hybrid is Proton, in collaboration with Lotus. Unveiled at the Geneva motor show, the Proton Gen.2 EVE hybrid concept has a claimed fuel economy figure of just 5.6L/100km — some 28 per cent better than the petrol road-going version. Proton has not revealed whether it is planning to mass-produce the hybrid.

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