Alpha: Field Of Broken Dreams?
Can Alpha deliver on the promise?
May 17, 2011
By: Charlie Philippou, Nick Saporito
It seems no rear-wheel drive program at General Motors goes without a soap opera's fill of drama. The Zeta program has been the source of constant back-and-forth, both publicly and privately. Hopes have been set high that the upcoming Alpha program would be a breath of drama-free air for GM rear-wheel drive, but GMI is hearing that drama and problem-free is furthest from the truth with regards to the coveted Alpha program.
Alpha's roots go back all the way to late 2004. It was generally inspired by the Torana concept car. At the time, the theoretical platform was loosely coined Kappa II, Kappa being the platform that underpinned the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky roadsters. The original plan was to make Alpha a true enthusiast's platform with perfect weight distribution, devoid of an excess of weight to distribute. Holden was all for developing such an architecture for a modern day Torana. At GM North America some saw this as a natural architecture for a reborn Camaro. Bob Lutz dreamed of creating a whole family of sporty, great handling, small-RWD cars for Pontiac.
And then came the first problem for the soon-to-be Alpha program. Not enough executives at GM were signing up with the program to make it's near $1 Billion price tag justifiable. Several vehicle line executives at GM North America wanted no part of the new platform, including Cadillac and executives' overall sentiment against 'premium small cars.' So internal politics, lack of interest and scarce funding put "Kappa 2" to sleep for a while.
A couple of years later Cadillac became interested in the program and signed on. It was at that point in 2007 that the platform was beginning to be referred to internally as Alpha and real development began.
However as Cadillac became involved with the Alpha program, a sense of deja vu came with it. Much like Cadillac's initial involvement with the Sigma platform, Cadillac had a long wish-list for the new Alpha platform. This long list quickly turned a light, sporty platform on it's head, including stops on development several times over the last few years.
Initially Alpha was going to be a four-cylinder only chassis for small premium cars, so naturally development focused on optimizing the Alpha platform for four-cylinder mills in a very light package. Well, Cadillac's first condition was that Alpha be re-engineered to package a naturally aspirated V-6 engine - and that was non-negotiable. This about-face on engine selection would become the first of at least two engine requests that led to a re-engineering of the Alpha chassis to accommodate the new requirements. More changes (read: more mass and cost) were required for the addition of all-wheel drive.
What started out as a great handling, small RWD program, began it's mission creep from being very focused to being all things to all people. And as it evolved, certain "hard-points" from previous development were locked in, even though the base program had transformed itself. For example, Alpha was designed with a very sophisticated multi-link front suspension with near perfect geometry for the car as it was developed at that point. That geometry was "locked in". As the car grew and became heavier with more features and content, that original geometry was no longer optimal. Our sources tell us that GM is now attempting to mask this sub-optimal geometry with chassis tuning rather than doing the right thing and actually fix it.
According to sources familiar with the Alpha program both internally at GM and the supplier level, GM has made several other additions to the requirement list of Alpha beyond engines. Among the additions were: a new electronics system and aerodynamic shutters (similar to the Volt).
Each addition has caused another issue to engineer around, thus causing the Alpha program to exceed GM's mass requirements for the car by nearly 500-pounds. It is unclear how heavy Alpha products will be, but every independent Alpha source GMI has communicated with has indicated that the final curb weight could push 4,000-pounds unless GM puts the program on a mass reduction plan before launch.
Another issue the Alpha program has been strapped with is the addition of Alpha+ about halfway through development. The Alpha+ chassis is a larger variant of Alpha, intended for use with the next-generation Cadillac CTS. Naturally, Cadillac has another list of requirements for Alpha+, including the need to accommodate twin-turbo V-6 engines. This has added another layer of complexity to the Alpha program, driving up both costs and mass.
Recently GMI has spoken with sources--both internal and supplier--that are working on the Alpha program. According to those sources the Alpha program has been a near constant stream of drama and problems for GM, all of which were compounded by the company's June 2009 bankruptcy. Even today, as the program nears its final stages of development, problems are still being worked out of the Alpha cars.
GM is now struggling to reduce Alpha's mass by a quarter-ton. One source indicated that GM is willing to throw all sorts of new composite technologies at the body, structure and powertrain to achieve that goal. Those materials are being thrown at both the Cadillac Alpha cars and the sixth-generation Camaro.
At last report the Cadillac ATS is still slated to launch in mid to late 2012 as a 2013 model-year vehicle.