GM May Break Up SUV-Truck Marriage to Cut Fuel Use, Emissions

GM May Break Up SUV-Truck Marriage to Cut Fuel Use, Emissions 601109&sid=ak87hDNumPjU&refer=home
May 8 (Bloomberg) -- General Motors Corp. may be forced to break up a seven-decade marriage of pickups and large sport- utility vehicles as Americans restrict the fossil-fuel diet of their transportation.
Under pressure to produce a more fuel-efficient and cleaner- running line of vehicles, GM is investigating ways to design a lighter replacement for its biggest SUVs, such as the Chevrolet Tahoe, without relying on a heavier pickup-truck frame, according to people familiar with the effort.
The Tahoe and its predecessors have shared the design of the Chevy Silverado pickups since the model was introduced in 1965. While no decision has been made, GM engineers are considering a shift in 2012 to a car-like construction for successors to the Tahoe and other large SUVs, including the GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade, said the people, who asked not to be named because the talks are confidential.
``It's a sea change in the type of vehicle that Americans are going to be driving,'' said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at consulting firm Global Insight Inc. in Lexington, Massachusetts. ``This is a big thing. For a long time, GM has been able to rely mostly on profits from trucks. That's changing.''
GM, the world's largest automaker, may also cut annual production capacity for these larger SUVs and pickups by 40 percent to 1 million vehicles from 1.7 million, the people said. Detroit-based GM announced April 28 that it will cut one shift each at three truck plants and one making SUVs starting in July because of sales declines this year.
GM has no comment on design or production changes for future SUVs, spokeswoman Sherrie Childers Arb said.
Shift Away
A shift away from a 72-year history of building an SUV off a large pickup-truck chassis would echo other moves by Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner as he tries to meet a government requirement to cut fuel use 40 percent by 2020. Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC are also making fewer heavy-duty trucks to reduce their fleets' fuel consumption and meet the future mandate of a national average of 35 miles a gallon.
Lighter vehicles would not only reduce emissions and dependence on gasoline amid record fuel prices, they may also help GM sell more vehicles. Seeking to draw fuel-conscious buyers and end three years of losses, the automaker has already begun to eliminate larger eight-cylinder engines and is developing more models that use electric power and burn fuels from plant waste.
``This is part of the broader debate on how much the fuel- economy discussion is going to change cars and trucks,'' said Jim Hall, principal of 2953 Analytics, a Birmingham, Michigan, automotive consulting firm. ``This is fallout.''
Compliance Costs
The cost for cars and light trucks of complying with the first phase of the standards, from 2011 to 2015, would be about $47 billion, according to an estimate by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Motorists would recoup the cost within 56 months through fuel savings, NHTSA said.
GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, 76, estimates it will cost as much as $7,000 a car to meet the fuel requirements. He has predicted 80 percent of vehicles may have to run on a combination of gasoline and electric power to meet the 2020 standard. Ford, the second largest U.S.-based automaker, signaled it may also move away from truck-based models. In January, the company showed the Explorer America, a car-based prototype that may be a successor to the current mid-size, truck-based Explorer.
Explorer sales have declined more than 70 percent since 2002. The experimental redesign shows the Explorer can work as a car-based vehicle, Ford's worldwide product-development chief Derrick Kuzak said in January.
`Big Ramifications'
Chrysler doesn't build a full-size SUV based on the Ram pickup frame and is moving mid-size SUVs -- the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen -- away from truck-based, body-on-frame construction, said Frank Klegon, who heads Chrysler product development. The automaker can eliminate about half the 11 SUV models it sells now, Co-President Jim Press said March 20.
``This discussion has big ramifications,'' said Haig Stoddard, a Troy, Michigan-based forecaster for Global Insight, the forecasting company. ``It has come back down to what automakers need to do to balance fuel economy and what U.S. consumers think they need in the market.''
The biggest SUVs sold in the U.S. are built on a frame, including Ford's Expedition, Toyota Motor Corp.'s Sequoia, Nissan Motor Co.'s Armada and GM's larger models. GM, which developed the Chevy Suburban in 1936 as one of the first SUVs, controls more than two thirds of this segment.
Frame Versus Unibody
Separating large SUVs from pickup designs would require GM to forfeit savings from building a range of vehicles with common parts. The alternative being contemplated is whether it makes sense to convert the largest SUVS like the Tahoe to unibody construction, according to the people participating in the internal debate.
Unibody construction relies on a frameless shell and is used to build most passenger cars and some small SUVs. It typically produces lighter vehicles that provide a smoother ride than frame-built models. Pickups would need to keep their frames because commercial uses for towing and hauling require the stronger infrastructure, the people said.
GM is weighing the risk of alienating buyers who are drawn to frame-built SUVs because of their ability to tow boats, trailers and other loads, the people said. GM may consider keeping a truck chassis on one model, they said.
For example, the mid-size Chevrolet TrailBlazer SUV with a frame can tow 6,800 pounds (3,060 kilograms). Honda Motor Co.'s Pilot SUV, a unibody model of about the same size, is capable of towing 3,500 pounds, according to in Santa Monica, California, which tracks vehicle specifications for consumers. The TrailBlazer has a maximum fuel economy of 20 miles a gallon while the Pilot is listed at 22, according to
`A Compromise'
``They are talking about changing to a package that meets most of your needs, most of the time,'' said Alan Baum, an auto trend forecaster at the Planning Edge in Birmingham, Michigan. ``The `need to have it' type buyers are not going to be satisfied. This is a compromise.''
Whether GM changes its SUV construction, consumers are losing their appetite for the largest trucks, according to buying trends. GM's sales of large SUVs fell 5.2 percent in 2007, and pickups dropped 2.4 percent. In the first quarter this year, U.S. sales of large pickups and SUVs were off 14 percent from a year earlier.
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