Richard Truett
Richard Truett
Technology and Engineering Reporter

GM's new head of powertrain 'loves' diesels

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  • “I love diesels.”

    There’s one clue to how General Motors’ new head of global powertrain, Steve Kiefer, might steer future engine development.

    Kiefer made the comment this week when GM introduced one of the biggest engine programs in its history. Later this spring GM will debut the first of a new family of small Ecotec engines, 11 in all, that will be built around the world in five plants by 2017. The new three- and four-cylinder engines will eventually account for nearly 25 percent of GM’s total engine production and produced at the rate of 10,000 engines a day.

    Another clue to Kiefer’s thinking: he values quietness and refinement in engines, perhaps more than pushing the technology envelope strictly for bragging purposes.

    My view after meeting Kiefer twice is that he won’t spend money to impress tech heads with whiz-bang technology if he can improve what already exists and achieve the same thing, but for less cost.

    The new GM Ecotec engines, for example, use older, but proven technology, in the cam chains, the engine blocks and in other areas. But GM engineers have tuned and tweaked these parts to greatly reduce noise and vibration.

    GM says its new 1.0-liter three-cylinder is smoother, quieter and more efficient than Ford’s 1.0-liter three. And GM’s newest small engines will still use technology that some might consider old.

    Kiefer arrived at GM last September after a long stint at Delphi Automotive, where he finished up as senior vice-president of powertrain systems.

    He has a big job ahead of him.

    GM is behind Ford and Chrysler in fuel economy in many key segments. The new engines will help shore that up. And there’s a complex transmission joint venture with Ford that has to go perfectly, or it will cost each company dearly.

    GM and Ford are collaborating on a new generation of 9- and 10-speed transmissions. The 10-speed gearboxes will be used in both company’s pickups in about two years. The F-150 and the GM twins, Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, lag far behind Chrysler’s Ram 1500 Ecodiesel in the fuel economy race.

    Ford will close some of the gap with its new aluminum-bodied F-150 coming later this year. But for the time being, both trucks use six-speed transmissions, while the Ram has 8-speeds.

    Kiefer arrived at GM last September after a long stint at Delphi Automotive, where he finished up as senior vice-president of powertrain systems.

    It’s unclear at this point if GM will quickly roll out a diesel in its Silverado and Sierra or if it will downsize its engines.

    Kiefer brings to GM a great view of the industry. From his Delphi days when he met regularly with the powertrain chiefs of most major automakers, he knows what technologies his competitors are investing in to boost fuel economy and lower emissions.

    On the powertrain front, GM has been a bit rudderless in recent years, especially after its former vice president, Tom Stephens, retired. Now there’s a new Scotty in GM’s engine room. He’s open-minded to all technologies and he’s passionate about the job.

    That’s good. Because 2025 and the mandated 54.5 mpg standards are looming.

    You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.