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Cutting-Edge Manufacturing, Parts Sharing Make Pontiac Solstice a Reality
Posted on 1/4/04 7:10 p.m. CST
DETROIT — At a press preview for the North American International Auto Show, General Motors rolled out a prototype 2006 Pontiac Solstice. Based on the concept car of the same name that debuted here two years ago, the Solstice is an affordable two-seat convertible expected to compete with the Mazda Miata and Toyota MR2 Spyder. Key to the model’s future are the new Kappa platform, innovative manufacturing techniques and broad parts sharing among GM divisions worldwide.
“The Solstice concept was based on a compact, rear-wheel-drive platform, a set of components that, at that time, did not really exist at GM,” said Bob Lutz, GM vice chairman of product development. “So we began development of a small, flexible, athletic and, importantly, adaptable architecture. The intent was to explore the opportunities that a new roadster-inspired architecture would inspire in other markets and for other General Motors brands, and that led to the development of the Vauxhall VX concept.”

GM’s British Vauxhall division introduced the VX Lightning concept, which shares the Solstice’s overall shape, one year ago in London. “The Pontiac Solstice concept served as the catalyst for Kappa,” Lutz said. “The Vauxhall VX proves that it can be adapted to various brands with strong differentiation.”

Taking it a step further, Lutz introduced today the Chevrolet Nomad and Saturn Curve concepts, which are even more distinguished from the Solstice. The Nomad is wagon shaped, and both concepts have 2+2 seating. Mark Hogan, GM group vice president of vehicle development, said, “Kappa is our first small, rear-wheel-drive architecture, and in addition to delivering a solid foundation for vehicles with great dynamics, it also provides a strong business case for several products in many markets.

“We developed Kappa in just two years, and there are three reasons we were able to go so fast,” he said. “First, we’re working with a redesigned vehicle-development process that more fully utilizes our global design and engineering expertise. Second, Kappa incorporates a number of proven GM components and systems that already exist, saving us both time and money. And finally, we employed innovative manufacturing techniques, including sheet hydroforming.”

Lori Queen, GM North America vehicle line executive for small cars, said, “Anybody could have designed a $40,000 roadster, but our goal was to do it for half of that.”

Making this happen required sharing parts from past, present and future GM models. “We don’t have a small rear-wheel-drive car, so they had to do some thinking and they had to look broader than North America. This program used the global parts bin. There are components in this car from every part of GM, literally. I had [Germany’s] Opel, [Australia’s] Holden, [Italy’s] Fiat. I was able to cut costs, I was able to save time. It let us go fast to market at a better price. We have proven quality and durability. The object wasn’t just to reuse parts. It was to find things that the customer doesn’t see, or find parts that really add character to the vehicle.”

Queen said the complete list of scavenged parts is too long to recite but includes seat frames from the Opel Corsa, fog lights from the GMC Envoy, gauges from the upcoming Chevrolet Cobalt, a rear differential from the Cadillac CTS and air conditioning vents from Fiat.

Where automakers have long used hydroforming — high-pressure water jets — to form frame components, sheet-metal hydroforming is a new technology in the industry that will be used in the Solstice when it begins production late in 2005 at the Wilmington, Del., Assembly Plant. Rather than stamp sheet metal between two dies, this process uses water jets on one side of the metal to form it against a single die.

One advantage is that sheet hydroforming enables complex shapes, evidenced by the Solstice, Nomad and Curve. “None of the hoods on the three Kappa vehicles could have been done with traditional die sets,” Queen said.

The process is also cost effective compared with conventional stamping, because dies are one of the most expensive propositions in vehicle manufacture, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. “The costs are substantially less because you have a high-pressure water bladder on one side,” Queen said. “The die itself is your biggest cost, so you’ve automatically cut that piece; you’re only doing one, not two. The only other way to make some complex forms and shapes is with multiple hits, which requires even more dies. So if you cut those kinds of costs out, it’s a substantial improvement in cost.”

The only downside to sheet hydroforming, Queen said, is that it takes longer than stamping, but the Solstice — and any other likely Kappa platform derivative — is going to be a low-volume model, which makes this trade-off less relevant. Queen said she believes Solstice production will be capped at 20,000 units annually.

The Solstice prototype’s interior is rich in design and quality, better even than the concept’s — but it was hand-built for the prototype, Lutz said. “The trick is going to be to get that exactly translated into production in terms of gloss levels, grain and gaps between parts, and so forth — to get that level of perfection in production.”

— Reported by Joe Wiesenfelder, cars.com;
photographed by Casey Spring, cars.com;
additional images courtesy of the manufacturer

114 Posts
good article.

but GM needs to bring this approach to more of their mass market car models, where they are getting hurt by competitors. Mid size and large sedans, SUVs, etc. The next 3-5 years are make or break for GM.
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