Under Nicholson, GM's new engines shatter the status quo

Chevrolet has the largest lineup of diesel engines, including this 2.8-liter available in the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon.

The announcement last month of an inline-six turbodiesel engine planned for the next-generation Chevrolet Silverado pickup officially kicks off the Dan Nicholson era at General Motors.

Although Nicholson, vice president of the automaker's global propulsion systems, has held the job since the winter of 2014, the first engine designed and engineered under his watch is the new diesel. GM plans to introduce a second all-new engine -- not an iteration of the inline-six -- on March 19. I am told it will not be a conventional engine in keeping with recent trends.

Nicholson, 53, has spent his career in powertrain and controls. I spoke with him last month at the Detroit auto show.

Nicholson: "We try to put the right level of stretch in the organization without putting our engineers under inappropriate pressure."

About the new Silverado diesel: Why an inline-six?

Inline six-cylinder engines historically have very excellent [noise, vibration and harshness] characteristics. So what you see in automotive history is when you can package an inline-six, you might as well do an inline-six. I've worked on a ton of V-6s for a long time. I love V-6s in general. But usually it is the only way to package six-cylinders. We clearly did the inline for NVH performance, which I think is important and our customers will appreciate.

Can you share some technical details of the 3.0-liter six?

I'm proud to be linked to this engine. But it's always a team effort and I don't want to say that it's mine. It's an all-new GM design, done totally in-house. It was designed from day one to focus on the light-duty, full-size truck. So unlike other engines, this has one primary reason for being and is laserlike focused. We are not compromising anything.

If you want to make every automotive journalist happy, say that the new engine will be available with a manual transmission.

Have you seen the truck penetration for diesel manuals? We are one of the few manufacturers that has a diesel-manual transmission combination in its portfolio [Chevrolet Cruze] and you didn't buy one! Chevrolet, by the way, has the broadest diesel portfolio in the industry in the U.S. We are happy to add one more to the growing family.

Diesel versions of the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups have achieved EPA-certified highway ratings of 30 mpg. What about the Silverado diesel's fuel economy?

The way we run our business for fuel economy, which, of course is really important, is we have a target for each and every vehicle and every combination. That's our process. But it's early and I can't say anything yet on Silverado 3.0-liter diesel fuel economy. We have to follow the process.

Generally, is GM successful in hitting those targets?

Our track record is not 100 percent. We don't hit every target. We set aggressive targets because we're trying to really move the ball as far as we can. But regulatory compliance, sticking to the procedures and having high integrity [fuel economy] labels is critically important to our company. We try to put the right level of stretch in the organization without putting our engineers under inappropriate pressure.

Even though fuel economy targets are being re-examined and could be rolled back, does investing in technology that improves fuel economy future-proof vehicles such as the Silverado if high fuel prices return or stricter targets are enacted?

We continue to make very significant fuel economy investments for full-size truck customers. Obviously, the full-size truck segment is very important. We don't have a one-size-fits-all truck. Whether that is talking about the looks or what is under the hood, we've got a lot of customers. The 3.0-liter inline diesel engine is an investment in our customers. So is Dynamic Fuel Management and the new 10-speed automatic transmission. We think the 3.0-liter inline diesel will be an engine our customers appreciate.

Dynamic Fuel Management looks like it has the potential to boost fuel economy in gasoline engines.

It can shut off from one to seven cylinders in various patterns so that customers get the performance they need all the time, and it is very responsive. And it also maximizes efficiency. It is distinctly different from the Active Fuel Management, which we've had in the past, which was eight cylinders or four. So this is a whole bunch more combinations, which allows for a lot more efficiency.

GM has made big investments in electrified vehicles. Does the company plan to ramp up production of electric motors in-house?

This is a broad supply chain issue. Unlike the way today's engines and transmissions that are bolted together to form a powertrain, electric motors are integrated with the shafts and gears and castings of a drive unit. But let's talk about a pure electric drive unit. The analogy of thinking about electric motors as you do engines isn't really right, since the motor is integrated. The business model of an OEM-owned motor factory that then ships electric motors to let's call it a drive unit factory to produce finished products probably isn't the right way this will be commercialized.

What's really important to OEMs is motor efficiency. If you are talking about a pure electric vehicle, every thousandth of a percent of efficiency is really important to range and other customer facing characteristics. So what's important is to have a very efficient design that is cost effective. There is intellectual property in motor design details. So we are looking at what is the volume for certain applications, what are the design characteristics that suppliers have. There are several competent suppliers in this area, and it is an evolving supply chain. And then we look at what we are capable of doing in-house. You want to have efficient use of capital and the most efficient designs. And I would say the industry is still evolving on how to accomplish that. That's why you see a number of business models today. I think we are in a transitory situation where supply chains are still sorting out what is the best value proposition.

Is GM open to partnerships to produce electric motors or drive units?

Yes. We are open to partnerships, both with other OEMs and suppliers. We are striving as a company to be the partner of choice among Tier 1 suppliers and other OEMs in the propulsion space. And you do that by having really good competence and being a trusted, high-integrity partner. That's what we are trying to do, and with some success. I think the electrification space is pretty broad and open for that.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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