Monday 18 February 2013

RAM diesel to spark pick-up truck battle

CHRYSLER’S long-held plan to launch its Ram 1500 half-ton truck with a VM Motori V6 diesel engine could well spark both Ford and General Motors to do the same.

Chrysler dealt the first blow in a new pick-up truck battle the North American International Auto (NAIA) Show in Detroit on 14 January when it launched the Jeep Grand Cherokee equipped with a 3-litre V6 EcoDiesel. It has since been forced to confirm the same V6 EcoDiesel will become available in 2014 model year Ram 1500 pick-up trucks from July this year.

Ram is the first brand to announce a diesel engine in the critical half-ton pick-up truck sector, throwing down new competitive benchmarks in fuel economy, CO2 emissions, driving range and torque. The Ram 1500 is the standard-duty version of the well-known pick-up truck that won the 2013 Motor Trend Truck of the Year Award.

If Ford and GM now follow suit, then this could not only boost diesel activity in North America, but make waves in the foundry supply industry, as all three engines most likely will use compacted graphite iron (CGI) as the material of choice for cylinder blocks.

In this highly competitive market, neither Ford nor GM can be expected to let Chrysler ‘get away with it’. Ford, not due to issue a new model truck this year, stole the thunder when the NAIA show opened to journalists on 14 January by introducing the Actros concept truck with its styling cues for Ford’s future F150 pick-up truck.

Ford president, Alan Mulally proudly referred to Actros in his keynote speech at the Automotive News World congress in Detroit on 15 January.

In 2008, each of Detroit’s Big Three planned diesel offerings in the half-ton sector, but scrapped the plans when the economic downturn hit automakers’ front offices in 2009, resulting in US government bailouts  for GM and Chrysler, and Ford saving itself by the skin of its teeth.

Now Detroit is healthy again and focusing attention on profit-making pick-up trucks. Such hard-headed executives are unlikely to spend much time and money on the development of electric vehicles that, at the moment, few people are buying. Much rather they have a wish to make and sell pick-up trucks that are the basis of profitable life-blood.

For ironically it is the pick-up truck’s success that is providing the funding for electric vehicle research and development – and will continue to do so for many years to come if battery technology and infrastructure are to be improved.

Some four years ago, Chrysler had its eyes fixed on Cummins Inc., its diesel engine provider for Super Duty pick-up trucks and with which it had an agreement to supply a 5-litre V8 engine. When Chrysler shelved that programme, it left Cummins with a $400 million manufacturing facility, effectively standing empty and its executives embarked on a seemingly on-going (and unending?) search for customers.

Meanwhile, at roughly the same time, Ford was developing the 4.4-litre V8 diesel with the intention of placing it in the F150. GM meanwhile worked similarly on its 4.5-litre V8 that may well have been the best of the bunch, but that too was shelved.  One beneficiary of Ford’s work was Land Rover. Owned by TATA Motors of India, the UK vehicle builder uses Ford’s V8 engines in Land Rover models.

All of the US vee engines relied on CGI cylinder blocks produced using SinterCast technology at various sourcing foundries.

                         Who will react most quickly?

So who can best react to the Ram 1500 introduction – and quickly? Ford probably. Mark Fields, Ford Motor Company’s chief operating officer has already thrown his hat into the ring, noting that Ford could act quickly if it detected any “spike” in diesel engine demand; attributing the company’s flexibility to the fact that Ford sells diesel-powered vehicles in other regions, most notably Europe.

Indeed, Fields may already have “thrown the switch” in house to take up the challenge. For Ford obviously has the advantage; it has the 4.4-litre V8 running down lines at its Chihuahua Engine Plant (CEP) in Mexico, although only equipped for European emission standards. The more stringent US standards would require an upgrade, probably to include selective catalytic reduction (SCR) and even urea for NOx control.

Secondly, as we shall see later, GM with its inside track on VM Motori (through joint ownership) could be in a position to secure an engine (the 3-litre V6) that is EPA 2010 emissions ready.

Finally, there is Cummins Inc., a giant in the diesel engine business. It can offer its 5-litre V8, development of which was part funded by the US Department of Energy. Although highly acclaimed this may be too large for the high-selling half-ton pick-up truck sector. Cummins may have missed the downsizing boat by being just that bit too smart, though it has a lighter-weight I4 diesel.

On the other hand, there may be a market in waiting: the 5-litre V8 could provide an excellent solution in terms of fuel economy, pulling power and refinement for the Super Duty class, starting with the Ram 2500 that currently uses a Cummins 6.7-litre I6. It is not ideal; but it would give time to develop a 4.5-litre vee engine. 

Meanwhile, it became clear last year that Chrysler would opt for the V-6 diesel engine from VM Motori of Cento, Italy, a company jointly owned by Fiat and General Motors. Formed in 1949, VM has become a growing force in the diesel engine world, a manufacturer which has been the centre of attention in the field of mergers and acquisitions.

                                     Purpose built

The 3-litre V6 EcoDiesel is based on a Sinter-Cast CGI cylinder block and bedplate cast at the Tupy foundry in Brazil. Following pre-machining at Tupy, final machining and engine assembly is performed in a purpose-built manufacturing facility at VM Motori.

Engine production has been under way since 2010 for the European Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chrysler 300 and Lancia Thema.

Volume production of the CGI cylinder block and bedplate ramped up during second half 2012, in advance of the Jeep and Ram announcements in the US. Volumes are expected to exceed 100,000 engine equivalents, each engine accounting for at least 50kg.

 Although performance and fuel economy ratings have yet to be disclosed for the Ram1500, the EcoDiesel offers 240bhp and 570Nm torque in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and 40 per cent improved fuel economy compared to the V6 petrol engine alternative.

There are rumours that employees at the facility in Cento, not far from Maranello, could be involved in a wider Fiat Group offensive that forms part of an industrial plan to sell Fiat powertrain technology on a much larger scale.

That VM Motori should supply Chrysler, itself part of the Fiat Group, with diesel engines inevitably raises a few eyebrows, not least because as already mentioned, VM Motori is jointly owned by GM. On the face of it, GM executives in Detroit must be well aware of what is happening in Cento – and what future plans VM Motori has for supplying other customers.

GM will be aware too of long-term product and production planning at the Italian plant. The 3-litre V6 was designed initially for GM; specifically for fitment to Cadillac models destined for Europe, but GM cancelled it during the dark days of 2009.

So there is much that GM may be privy to behind the scenes, as information leaks through Chinese walls.  Just as in the same way GM has seen daily output of engines at Cento increase substantially from 150 a few years back to 400 by the end of 2012. In the same way, the workforce has risen from 1,100 to some 1,400 to cope with demand. It may well be that the 3-litre V6 could appear in GM’s half-ton Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pick-up trucks, both due to appear shortly in 2014 model year guise.

But as to who will eventually own VM Motori outright remains to be seen, bearing in mind Fiat’s current acquisitive nature.   

Meanwhile, lurking in the background is yet another potential issue; and another focus of diesel powertrain activity. This is GM’s Powertrain Engineering Centre with its headquarters in Turin, Italy. The company established this unit with an investment of $43million in 2005. The centre was charged with the responsibility for developing all diesel engines for GM passenger vehicles sold around the world. In 2011 it invested another nearly $30 million in the centre. During the alliance between Fiat and GM, the centre formed part of the doomed Fiat-GM Powertrain initiative.

Though the Fiat/GM alliance has long since been dismantled, neither automaker can be discounted in any further rounds of the mergers and acquisitions roundabout that year-on-year appears to dominate the world’s automotive scene. GM’s latest entanglement with Peugeot/Citroen is but another episode.


Notwithstanding this, the overall picture in the pick-up truck sector is one of optimism. This could be the one final big push (outside of Asia) that CGI-compatible foundries have been longing for: the much longed-for opening up of the North American pick-up truck market to the diesel engine – and CGI. This year and next could be the start of something that makes all the work – and the waiting – worthwhile.

It will come as no surprise if other pick-up truck makers adopt diesel powertrains as federal regulations demand tighter fuel economy. Cars and trucks will need to hit 54.5 mile/gal in federal tests by 2025; this translates to about 39 mile/gal in combined city and highway driving as donated on the vehicle’s window sticker is showrooms.

Pick-ups remain the best-selling vehicles in the US with the Ford F150 (46,841 sales in January 2013) and GM’s Chevrolet Silverado (35,445 sales in January 2013) holding top spots. The Ram 1500 is in a solid ninth position, with January 2013 sales of 20,474.

A 24 January 2013 memorandum from management to employees at the Dodge Ram facility in Warren, noted that “Warren Truck Assembly Plant will build more Ram trucks than ever, growing from 227,000 in 2012 to over 300,000 in 2013.”

On 15 November 2012, the company announced that a third crew of 1,000 jobs would be added in March 2013 to the already 2,700 employees. The Warren Truck Assembly Plant is based in Mound Road, Warren, Michigan.

Chrysler ended Dodge Dakota production at the plant on 23 August 2011 after some 2,750,000 had been built at a facility that first started making trucks in 1938. Production of the Ram began in 2008. The facility has 535 robots.

To achieve its revised output rates to meet demand, employees will move to four 10-hour days a week instead of the previous five eight-hour days – and more will end up working weekends.

                                    Impact on profit

The overall perspective in terms of January light-vehicle (car and truck) sales is one of onwards and upwards.  January month sales have grown steadily from 657,161 in January 2009 to 1,043,192 in January 2013.

  In contrast to Europe, where last year sales fell dramatically, the US car and truck market finished 2012 with sales of 14.4 million passenger vehicles, the highest since 2007.

The average prediction from eight prominent US market forecasters is for US sales of 15.1 million (a rise of five per cent) in 2013, and a return to the pre-downturn high of 17 million in 2015 or 2016.

The US Federal Energy Information Administration has predicted that the average gasoline price in the US will be $3.43 per gallon in 2013, down from an average $3.63 for 2012. This reduction decreases the motivation for purchasing more expensive hybrid and electric vehicles, more often associated with a $4 threshold.

                                      Long-term view

On the subject of vehicle fuel economy, a senior Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) engineer, speaking at a University of Michigan conference about the US government's 2025 fuel economy standards, noted that the White House seeks to raise fuel economy targets to 54.5 mile/gal by 2025 model year. Jeff Alson added that the EPA expects real-world average fuel economy in 20-25 to be about 40 mile/gal, up from about 20 mile/gal in 2010, and a projected 27 mile/gal in 2016.

Also according to Alson, the EPA is forecasting: lightweight materials will reduce vehicle mass by eight per cent on average by 2025 because of corporate fuel economy standards; about 80 per cent of 2025 model year models will carry downsized, turbocharged powertrains and eight-speed transmissions; and finally, electric vehicles will account for only two per cent of the market in 2025 model year.

Meanwhile, pick-up and sports utility vehicle (SUV) sales are expected to grow faster than car sales during 2013.

With regard to profitability and vehicle size, Ford has claimed that 70 per cent of its automotive profit and, due to losses in Europe, 90 per cent of its global automotive profit is derived from US pick-up truck sales. This result, coupled with low gasoline prices, shows that both consumers and OEMs favour continued sales of large vehicles. That Chrysler launched the Grand Cherokee with the VM Motori 3-litre V6 engine displays good timing; the mid-sized SUV sector that the Grand Cherokee occupies, enjoyed a 21 per cent sales increase in 2012.

In the car sector, Audi has played its part in giving added momentum to the US diesel activity. At the NAIA show, the VW subsidiary announced it would introduce A6, A7 and Q5 vehicles with diesel engines during 2013. The diesel options will offer an average 30 per cent fuel economy gain over baseline gasoline engine alternatives.

At present, 10 per cent of Audi’s US sales volume is diesel and the company predicts this will double before 2016 as more diesel vehicles become available. At present, 36 per cent of Q7 sales and 55 per cent of A3 sales in the US are diesel. The Q7 is based on the 3-litre V6 with its CGI block cast using SinterCast process control technology.

Audi has also said that the combined average fuel economy of the A6, A7, A8 and Q5 diesels that will be introduced into the US during 2013 will be 30 per cent higher than the base line gasoline engine alternatives. Audi has already seized the nettle.

It may be worth pointing out in this context, that Audi and Ford between them lead the pack when it comes to most diesel vehicles sold with CGI cylinder blocks.

So, as the dust settles on Chrysler’s product announcement, many potential buyers may hang on to their dollars to see just how well the new Ram 1500 performs when it appears in the market place. Others, with a preference for Ford or GM products, will wait to see how their favourite nameplates react.

But the signs are good – for the first time in ages. The diesel take rate for heavy duty pick-up trucks is in excess of 60 per cent, with light-duty pick-ups coasting along well too. This can mean only one thing: CGI diesels are on their way up.

Historical comment: It should be noted that a Cummins diesel owners’ website with material copyrighted 2008-2013, declared that “Cummins is currently developing V8 and V6 engines for Dodge’s half-ton trucks”. It adds that it is unknown when the Ram 1500 will receive as diesel engine, but Chrysler has chosen Cummins to design and manufacture a light duty diesel for applications smaller than the 2500 and 3500 Ram. The engine has an iron block and aluminium heads. Bore and stroke are given as 3.7in and 3.94in respectively to give a displacement of 4.2 litres.  Weight is given as 663lb and output as 270bhp and 420lb-ft torque. The website, clearly many years old, notes that the “release date of the Cummins V6 has been pushed back indefinitely”. of 2009 gave similar details of the 4.2-litre V6 and the 5.6-litre V8 adding that the latter weighs in at 788lb.