Friday, 13 December 2013

Will Ford respond before Ram wins 3 times?

How will Ford Motor Company respond to the mounting accolades being heaped upon Chrysler’s Ram 1500 pick-up truck in the US?

One has to think the Dearborn, Michigan based automaker will not take too long before it making an important announcement. Most likely this will come in 2014.

Ford has made plain in the past that it will vigorously defend its position as Number One pick-up truck builder in North America – a position it has held for 37 straight years.

Certainly, on the morning it was announced on 4 December that the Ram 1500 diesel pick-up truck had been awarded Motor Trend’’s 2014 Truck of the Year Award, it would have been the hot talking point in all the coffee shops in Ford’s Dearborn headquarters as well as similar sites in Ford’s Kentucky plant and the Claycomo car plant in Kansas City where the F150 pick-up truck is built.

This is the first time that the same truck has won the Award two years’ running. Usually only new (or significantly modified) trucks are permitted in the competition. It might seem the Ram 1500 with its Italian-built VM Motori V6 3-litre diesel power unit is receiving too much attention for Ford’s comfort.

Said Motor Trend: “Two years ago Ford rocked the boat with its twin-turbo V6 Eco-Boost engine. Last year, Ram rocked it again with air suspension and its eight-speed automatic transmission.”

Motor Trend had hoped “General Motors (GM) would continue the trend and blow us away with something even bigger. We were not expecting Ram to do just that.”

Significantly perhaps, in October, GM sold its 50 per cent stake in VM Motori to Fiat Auto, thus relinquishing any hold it might have on the engine which powers the Ram 1500. Why did GM do this when surely it has a need in the North American pick-up truck market for a diesel comparable with that in the Ram 1500?

                        General Motors’ reply?

This week, GM named Mary Barra its chief executive, making her the first woman to head a major auto firm. Barra’s appointment was announced Tuesday, a day after the Barack Obama’s government sold off its last stake in the automotive giant. Daughter of a GM worker, Barra joined the company at 18 and is currently its global head of product development.

According to GM, 51-year-old Barra has risen through a series of manufacturing, engineering, and senior staff positions in her 33 years with the company. She succeeds Dan Akerson, a corporate turnaround expert appointed by President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009 to help shepherd the automaker through its bankruptcy. She will also join the company’s board, the fifth female member of the 14-strong board. GM emerged from bankruptcy in July 2009.

The company has become solidly profitable despite continuing difficulties in Europe. The US lost $10.5 billion on its GM bailout, according to officials, who argued that was a smaller loss than it would have suffered had GM gone under. Akerson, 65, brought forward his succession plan several months after his wife was recently diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. He steps down in January.

One has to assume that high on Barra’s ‘to do’ list is to find a solution to GM’s diesel dilemma. The 4.5-litre V8 diesel the company carefully engineered is gathering dust in a corner somewhere, while the tools lined up to machine and assemble the diesel have been sold off. At first sight it would seem that the cupboard is bare. There is, seemingly, no small diesel suitable for the Chevrolet Silverado or the GMC Sierra in GM’s cupboard – unless it is lurking in Europe.

Barra has to find a diesel solution, and quickly. For, while Ford is in a strong position to reply to the challenge thrown down by Chrysler with its Ram 1500, GM appears inept. On the other hand, GM does not have a Number One position to defend, so there may seem to be less pressure to respond quickly.

                        VM Motori’s strong position

VM Motori is now wholly owned by Fiat. So, if the company, based in Cento, Italy goes over its present capacity limit to meet the growing needs of the Ram 1500, it is in a strong position to build a clone manufacturing line in Cento.

Last month, following receipt of regulatory approvals, Fiat Group Automobiles’ stated that its acquisition of the 50 per cent stake in VM Motori SpA held by GM is now complete. The purchase consideration was €34.1 million. Fiat Group acquired an initial 50% stake in VM in 2010 and now has 100% control. The purchase has been implemented following the exercise of a put option by General Motors, after several years of fruitful cooperation.

Established in 1947, VM is specialized in the production of advanced diesel engines. Its plant located in Cento, in north-east Italy, covers an area of 85,000 square meters and employs approximately 1,150 people.

VM produces around 90,000 engines per year for customers such as Jeep, Chrysler, Lancia and LTI (London Taxi). A VM engine, the most powerful in its class, also powers the first ever diesel model just launched by Maserati.

Seemingly this year the Ram 1500 was allowed back into the Motor Trend’s prestigious competition line-up because the diesel option in the vehicle was regarded as a significant new step.

This Award came as welcome news for a number of companies, not the least of them being SinterCast which has pioneered the process control technology that permits the production of the compacted graphite iron (CGI) that forms the cylinder block and bedplate of the VM Motori diesel engine powering the Ram 1500.

                             Ford’s reply will be?

So how, and when will Ford respond in its campaign to “meet ‘em and beat ‘em” as it seeks to defend the Number One position? already the rumour mill in the US is pointing to a new F150 with aluminium chassis rails developed by Alcoa. This set to debut at the Detroit Auto Show in January, 2014. The rumour mill suggests the ally chassis rails and other modifications will save 340kg (750lb) and there will be a new 2.7-litre EcoBoost engine (part of a new family called Nano) coupled to a 10-speed automatic transmission.

The top three best-selling vehicles in the US this year to the end of October are products from Ford, GM and Chrysler. The Ram 1500 has slipped almost unnoticed under the radar into third spot from a lowly sixth position earlier this year.

Indeed, according to PWC (PriceWaterhouseCoopers), these three companies will hold their premier positions from 2014 through to 2017, even allowing for the arrival of Nissan with its Titan pick-up truck powered by the Cummins 5-litre V8 engine. The Cummins ISB5 was shelved in the eye of the 2007-2009 recession but is now expected to create 500 jobs at the Columbus, Indiana plant of Cummins.

Of the three, Ford is by far the Goliath of the light duty truck industry, possibly selling around 700,000 pick-ups a year. As such it is in a strong position to dictate how the gasoline and diesel pick-up truck sectors respond.

So how will Ford respond? On the diesel front, will it drop its 3-litre V6 Dagenham-built diesel between the chassis rails of the F150? Or opt for the more expensive 4.4-litre V8 diesel built at the Chihuahua Engine Plant (CHEP) in Mexico? If the 3-litre is chosen then more capacity may be needed at Dagenham.

Up to now Ford has been particularly proud of the twin-turbo EcoBoost engine which powered the company to the Motor Trend award two years ago. In January 2013 Ford announced 250,000 F-150s had been fitted with the V6 EcoBoost power unit. But now Ford has reached the position where it needs to deliver a big punch – a diesel punch – in the marketplace to reinforce its stature, and take the shine off the Ram 1500.

Unlike, GM which at present lacks a competitive diesel option for its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks, Ford does have the luxury of two diesel engines – both equipped with compacted graphite iron (CGI) cylinder blocks from Tupy SA in Brazil. Indeed, all Ford vee diesels use SinterCast technology in foundries to produce CGI material.

Adding a further boost to SinterCast’s credibility as the technology of choice to produce CGI is the news released this week that VM Motori’s 3-litre V6 engine has captured a coveted WardsAuto Ten Best Engines Award for 2014. Three of the top ten engines in the line-up were diesels, suggesting the diesel engine is now being more widely accepted in North America.

The VM Motori diesel is unusual too in the fact that it appears in such diverse applications and for SinterCast to be associated with two awards in such close proximity is a further bonus and positive news for the Stockholm-based company.

Nissan meanwhile, surely one of the smallest of the players in the light duty truck arena, earlier this year recruited (some might say ‘poached’) Fred M. Diaz as divisional vice president, Nissan Sales & Marketing, Service & Parts. He has full responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the Nissan Division in the U.S. This includes all sales, marketing, fixed operations, parts and service and administration functions.

Diaz had been chief executive officer (CEO) of Chrysler's Ram Truck unit since 2009 and also CEO of Chrysler de Mexico since 2011, responsible for all the Chrysler group brands there. Diaz clearly knows a diesel when he sees one and he (and Nissan) recognise their potential.

So it is not surprising perhaps that Nissan has decided to take on board the new Cummins 5-litre V8 for its Titan truck. The Cummins engine is another engine using SinterCast technology to produce the CGI blocks for engine. Cummins, a late comer to the CGI scene, has spent years assessing the material.

This leaves only GM as the outsider in the CGI stakes, a further reason for Mary Barra to give both diesels and CGI as the top priorities on her ‘to do’ list.

However, Nissan’s choice of a 5-litre V8 diesel and Chrysler’s choice of a 3-litre for the Ram 1500 does raise an intriguing question: Who is right – 5-litre or 3-litre? And which way will Ford move when it comes to slotting a diesel into the F150? Will January's Detroit Auto Show point the way - or will we have to wait longer?

 Adopting the 3-litre V6 from Dagenham would leave Ford’s vehicle engineers with the option of later moving to the 4.4-litre in the next round of revamps. And as vehicle engineers generally allow 12 months for a chassis to accept a new engine, there is clearly not much time to waste in the corridors of power in Dearborn.

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