GENERAL Motors is turning to Holden’s Melbourne-based design studio for a fresh perspective in studying, styling and building new concepts for its Chevrolet, GMC, Buick and Cadillac brands, according to GM Australia Design director Richard Ferlazzo.
Speaking exclusively to GoAuto, Mr Ferlazzo confirmed that the local outfit, which consists of about 150 design staff, is “flat out” working on new products for its American parent company.
“We are, at the moment, working on all of the brands – Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, GMC – in some form in the studio right now, whether it’s just sketching, which we will contribute to the theming of new products, or to actually having production programs to execute or building concept cars,” he said.
“Sometimes some of the concepts that we build are not shown to the public, they are internal, and they (GM top brass in Detroit) might decide whether they release them or not.
“Others are designed specifically for motor shows, and there are some cars coming up very soon that we have participated in … and others will be down the track a bit. We work years in advance.”
While Mr Ferlazzo would not specify the upcoming projects, he singled out the award-winning Buick Avenir concept from the 2015 Detroit motor show to highlight the abilities of the Australian team, who not only designed but built the concept that went on to receive international acclaim.
“Australia punches above its weight in this space, so it provides a great service to General Motors to get another perspective, which is where the design comes in,” he said.
“‘What do you think from fresh eyes what a Buick might look like?’ – that was a question asked to us of the Avenir a few years ago.
“Put that into context, this is an Australian studio with a brand that is not sold here, so all designers have not grown up (wedded to the same design language), even though we know what a Buick looks and feels like, we don’t have that history in the same way.
“But you can interpret what you think the image of that brand should be in a fresh way.”
However, GM gave a hint of what is to come with the electric vehicle technologies used in Holden’s virtual Time Attack Concept revealed earlier this month. The virtual concept features ultra-quick recharging and a quad-motor powertrain producing 1000kW and 3240Nm.
“We needed their (Detroit’s) permission because there’s a lot of technology shown in there, and we need to be sure we’re not sending a message that is inconsistent with General Motors policy or visions for the future,” Mr Ferlazzo said.
While Holden may not have a car to wholly call its own anymore following the shutdown of local production of the Commodore last year, Mr Ferlazzo said Holden was still a priority in GM’s vehicle development process and the global design operations led by expat Australian and former Holden chief designer Mike Simcoe.
“They (Holden’s product portfolio) are all General Motors products, so it’s all controlled,” he said. “Ultimately, with Mike Simcoe in charge, any product needs to go through this process and we have weekly meetings, as all the studios do with Mike, to show the progress on these products, whatever they are.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh what have you got?’ when they finish. We know what is happening the whole time, we’re part of a lot of projects, we put our hand up early enough to say, ‘Holden would like to share that product too.’ We all keep that in mind.
“It’s very feasible to do this successfully.”
Mr Ferlazzo pointed to the recently launched Acadia large SUV that is drawn from GMC’s vehicle portfolio as an example of cherrypicking the best products to suit the Australian market from GM’s disparate brands, but added that the design studio was doing more than just rebadging overseas products.
“With the GMC (Acadia) for example … we felt that was a good fit for our look and it could easily translate into a Holden with some revisions, and we’re in on this early in the piece as well,” he said.
“Part of our work, sure is only changing front ends and graphics for vehicles for our market, but we also design cars from the ground up here still, which will be built somewhere in the world, it will be shared with another brand.
“Other cars we would have designed will come back to us as a Holden, and some others will be products from the broader portfolio – Buicks or Chevys – that we haven’t been in control of that we share, so it isn’t just changing grilles and fascias, we still design complete cars – it just won’t be built here.
“So if we disregard the manufacturing base, we are still doing the same work we were before, on a global level, which we’ve done for a long time.”
Across Holden’s product portfolio, its top-selling Colorado – not to be confused with the North American-market Chevrolet Colorado – is built in Thailand and sold in South-East Asian and Latin America markets, the Commodore and Astra hatchback are European-designed and -built and sourced from Opel which is now under PSA Group ownership, and the Equinox and Acadia SUVs are sourced from North America.
Mr Ferlazzo said tying together vehicles with such differing design philosophies from across the world into one cohesive banner under the Holden stable was challenging, but not necessarily a negative as it allows the lion brand freedom to choose the right car for the right segment.
“If you look across any brand, you will find that their cars will be suited to the segment,” he said.
“Yes, we have European with Astra and Commodore – Astra suits that particular segment (small car) – then we get to something like Acadia, a large seven-seater, we felt it needed to be a muscular-looking vehicle, it’s large, it’s a family vehicle, Australians will give it a bit of stick, so we felt it was a good fit.
“You certainly want some brand familiarity without having that ‘Russian doll’ look.
“That can help in some brands … other times cars will be very different between segments, and people only buy one car at a time. I think we get caught up in this ‘making it all so cohesive’ that it falls into that Russian doll scenario.
“So if it suits your needs and you like the look of it, and it projects the brand image in different ways, that can work.”
With the sale of Opel and Vauxhall to PSA Group last year, Australia is now one of GM’s biggest right-hand-drive markets, putting pressure on Holden’s all-imported line-up to justify its existence.
But Mr Ferlazzo said that as the industry moves into emerging technologies, Holden’s line-up will be easier to justify.
“We have to be judicious in the portfolio, but we’ve just shown with Acadia that it is absolutely feasible, you only need a certain return on your investment to make it plausible,” he said, adding that Holden has GM executive vice-president for global product development (and former Holden boss) Mark Reuss’ support on this – “so he can help grease the wheels”.
“Every car we bring in here has to survive its own business case, there’s no charity in that respect, which of course puts pressure on our sales to make sure we keep the volumes up to substantiate that investment.
“But if I look longer term, and I see electrification and autonomy coming in – even at lower levels, not necessarily Level 5 – that technology doesn’t require the same architectural changes anymore.
“Longer term, it looks better and better, shorter term is what we’re dealing with right now, and we’re okay.”
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