Four years ago, GM's Oldsmobile division was fighting for its life. Five of its models--the 88, 98, Ciera, Achieva, and Cutlass Supreme--were running out of gas. All would eventually be slated for extinction. Worse, within GM, Oldsmobile was seen as a parasite--a division that siphoned off sales, not from competitors, but from other GM divisions.
That gloom may soon be history. The cause for hope: the new Alero, a mid-size import buster hitting showrooms now. Olds executives are betting it will reverse their fortunes and bring in a new class of buyers for the division.
Change the target. The Alero is the product of Oldsmobile's soul searching on what its target market should be. In 1995, the division made a radical move: Instead of battling Pontiac or Buick for customers, the division would compete directly against imports. "When you have Buick and Oldsmobile appealing to the same customer, and that customer is in a segment that's shrinking, it makes no sense," says General Manager Darwin Clark. "It made more sense for Oldsmobile to look for a market that was continuing to grow."
The import market, however, would be no easy conquest, and they knew it. Many import buyers were unhappy former GM customers. Worse, the vehicles they'd turned to, such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, were world-class cars.
The Alero was one of the first projects to get the green light after this change in strategy. Oldsmobile began by researching import vehicles and their customers. They learned what import buyers liked, then they benchmarked such features as leg room, head room, instrument-panel configuration, entrance, egress, ride, and handling. "We were amazed how articulate and knowledgeable import buyers are," says Kip Wasenko, chief designer of the Alero. "They may tell you that their car is for transportation, but they have tremendous knowledge of the market segments."
Wasenko, who was tapped by Oldsmobile for his experience as chief designer on the import-busting Saturns, already understood the look that appealed to import buyers. To those buyers, he says, fit and finish are critical. They also like refined, understated, uncluttered designs. "What we kept hearing was, 'Less is more,'" he recalls. "Import buyers don't like cladding or add-ons. They want the body sides to be very clean."
After taking Oldsmobile's assignment to design a "small mid-size" vehicle, Wasenko began a design odyssey that took him through 22 different themes, varying from very conservative to very expressive. At first, the designs were air-brush paintings, then scale models, then full-size clay versions. With each successive design, he honed in on the look that Oldsmobile's prospective customers wanted.
Body stiffness. As Wasenko closed in on the exterior and interior designs, engineers at General Motors Technical Center in Warren, MI, began the task of meeting the body, ride, and handling criteria.
From the outset, the team decided that the new car would need world-class ride and handling. That meant that the new vehicle's body would need to be stiff--much stiffer than preceding GM vehicles. "Within GM, the realization has been growing that body stiffness is very important," says Mike Danek, chief engineer for the Alero program. "Stiffness is the basis for a great car. There are some aspects you can do without, but stiffness is not one of them."
The reason for the new premium on stiffness is simple. Without it, the vehicle's body bends. As it does, it absorbs the impact from bumps and hard stops. As a result, the suspension isn't permitted to do its job. And for good ride and handling, the suspension--not the body--should absorb impact. When it doesn't, ride and handling are compromised. "Ideally, you want a good balance between ride, handling, and steering," Danek says. "You want responsive handling, but you don't want a punishing ride."
To achieve that, engineers modeled the vehicle on computers. Their goal: a body with a resonant frequency of 23 Hz in bending.
The 23-Hz frequency was a daunting goal. Many vehicles on the road today are closer to 18 Hz in longitudinal bending, say team engineers. Some of the best European luxury sedans hover around 22 Hz. "It seemed like an aggressive goal at the time," says Gene Stefanyshyn, GM vehicle line executive in charge of the Alero. "The old Pontiac Grand Am was only about 19 Hz."
Still, GM engineers believed they couldn't achieve the ride and handling they wanted without that bending frequency, so they moved ahead. To accomplish it, they employed a plan of integrated structural design, which had only been used a handful of times prior to the Alero program. In the integrated approach, a structural systems manager acts as a director, or traffic cop, for the rest of the design team. Engineers configuring the engine cradle, suspension, exhaust system, or any of a hundred other items all report to the structural systems manager. That way, he can ensure that the original design specifications--including stiffness--aren't lost in the process.
To meet the program's goals, Structural Systems Manager Jim Blenman worked with team members to optimize placement of mass. Using finite element analysis, he stiffened the area around the vehicle's A pillars and rockers. To enhance torsional rigidity, he and other team members placed a cross-car beam between the rockers, behind the rear pass-through area. They also placed additional reinforcement beneath the so-called rear kick-up area (where backseat riders put their feet), thus adding even more torsional rigidity.
Using such techniques, the team ended up exceeding its 23-Hz goal, ultimately reaching 25 Hz. Danek credits the integrated structural design approach for enabling them to achieve it. "With this method, you don't have people working independently, not knowing what the team's goals are," he says. "You have one person who leads the whole organization, and body structure is very important to him."
World-class handling. Stiffness, however, was only one major focus of the program. The others--steering and suspension--were critical if the Alero was to meet its ride and handling goals.
From the beginning, the Alero brand team had said that it wanted to reach a balance between low effort in tight corners and proper feel at higher speeds. "The people who planned the program felt that it was important to give a solid, steady feel on the highway and agility around town," Danek says.
Accomplishing that meant the team would need to employ a speed-sensitive variable-effort steering system. Borrowing from a patented system employed on earlier Cadillacs, they designed a unit that would provide a nimble feel without transmitting a lot of road harshness. They achieved their goal by using a pre-load that let them tailor the steering for so-called on-center feel. During higher-speed operation, the pre-load valve provides a force that must be overcome before the system provides additional boost. That way, the design ensures that the larger boosts are reserved for lower-speed, high-turning-effort situations.
Engineers also designed the steering rack to provide more isolation from road surfaces. To do that, they mounted the rack to the vehicle's cradle instead of its front dash surface to reduce the direct path that disturbances can travel. Result: less noise and vibration.
To further enhance ride and handling, they also gave the car a fully independent rear suspension. Partnering with GM's Delphi Chassis Div., engineers employed a "tri-link" independent rear suspension normally used in higher-priced automobiles. The critical advantage of the system is that it isolates bumps on one side of the vehicle from the other side, especially during turning. By using the tri-link, they eliminated potential handling disturbances. "For a car that is supposed to offer great ride and handling, independent rear suspension is too important to pass up," Danek says. "It's basic to the function of the vehicle."
Equally basic in the minds of Alero's design team was a feature that too many compacts pass up: good seating. For Alero, Oldsmobile employed a seating team composed of 15 people of different heights, weights, and ages. The team, determined to match the seating to the vehicle's structure, "re-tuned" the seats every time the suspension was changed. That meant softening or stiffening the springs and foam, altering the mounting techniques, and changing such things as the lumbar supports.
To maintain seating integrity, executives and designers from outside the team were discouraged from making detailed inputs. That way, the team could maintain a coherent seat design without worrying that their effort would be compromised by an inconsistent idea. Their "team rule" served as a sharp contrast to years past, when god-like executives and designers could change major features on a whim. "People were invited to offer their ideas," Danek says. "But if they wanted to make any serious changes, they had to join the team and go on the rides."
Winning customers. With the car now arriving in showrooms, Oldsmobile executives know they face a daunting challenge. Alero must go head to head against the likes of the Honda Accord, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, and other successful imports.
The vehicle's features, however, should make it competitive. Also helping make the Alero competitive is its relatively low cost, achieved in part by sharing its architecture with Pontiac's Grand Am. Unlike so many past efforts in which GM employed a common architecture, however, the two vehicles look unrelated. "We have commonality that is transparent to buyers, and we have differences where it is important to buyers," Wasenko says.
Now, of course, Oldsmobile executives will learn if import shoppers will lay down $16,000 to $20,000 for a domestic automobile. They know that some import buyers can't be convinced, no matter how good a vehicle they make. But they also believe Alero's design and engineering will appeal to a portion of consumers who might otherwise never consider walking into an Oldsmobile showroom. The car's design is clean and understated in the manner favored by import buyers. And its 25-Hz stiffness offers a foundation for European-type ride and handling.
For these reasons, Oldsmobile expects the Alero to match or surpass the early performance of the Intrigue. Thirty-five percent of the Intrigue's buyers have been new GM customers, while 15% are former import buyers. "Oldsmobile expects to bring in more and more import buyers," says General Manager Clark. "And Alero will play a big role in changing the minds of those buyers."
A stiff body minimizes squeaks and rattles as well as improving ride and handling. To build a 25-Hz body for the Alero, GM engineers:
- Employed a structural systems manager who ensured that component designs maintained desired stiffness.
- Used finite-element analysis to optimize the tradeoff between mass and stiffness.
- Added items such as a cross-car beam to enhance torsional rigidity.
What's in a name?
After all the work and planning they put into the car's design, Alero engineers say they weren't surprised by the overwhelming approval rating it garnered at a 1996 Los Angeles research clinic. "Researchers who had done this for a long time said it was the highest number they'd ever seen," notes Bob Clark, brand team manager for Alero. "But the people who were close to this project, who had spent nine months getting this car out--they would have been surprised if they didn't get numbers that high." But they should have been surprised. Very surprised. The Alero was, after all, an Oldsmobile. And Oldsmobiles didn't have a track record of popularity among the import buyers. Among those buyers, Oldsmobiles were perceived as...well, Oldsmobiles. The Olds Aurora had been a perfect example. A daring vehicle with exceptional ride and handling qualities, Aurora had universally impressed potential buyers at research clinics a few years earlier--until Oldsmobile executives attached a nameplate to it. Then, Aurora's scores dropped like a rock. Never mind the clean look and refined simplicity that had impressed attendees only moments before. Now, clinic goers didn't like it. It was a domestic, and even worse, an Oldsmobile. The Los Angeles research clinic--which lined the Alero up against 65 other models in front of 2,000 people--is just one of many events that have bolstered confidence at Oldsmobile. As a result, the division will soon reverse a trend that now hides, or eliminates, the company nameplate. "In the next 18 months, we will have the Oldsmobile name on the back of every vehicle," says Oldsmobile General Manager Darwin Clark. "We are Oldsmobile and proud of it."
Import and domestic buyers look for different visual cues.
|- Power bulges on hood - Sculpted shapes
|- Cladding on sides - Smooth body panels
|- Aggressive head lamps - Elegant face
|- "In-your-face" design - Refined simplicity