General Motors' effort to design a global four-cylinder engine called the L850 may have permanently rewritten the automaker's product engineering rule book.
For the first time, GM's international subsidiaries jointly sired a key product for worldwide markets.
To make it happen, GM broke another precedent by relying heavily on an outsider, England's Lotus Engineering, for development of a core powertrain crucial to its future.
Lotus was the neutral ground on which GM's diverse cultures harmonized their conflicting needs for an engine that can serve small and mid-sized Saturns, Opels, Chevrolets and Saabs.
Over the five-year design process, engineers were forced to act as politicians, diplomats and warriors, according to executives at Germany's Adam Opel AG and GM Powertrain in Detroit.
GM's international subsidiaries have enjoyed relative independence for so long that they are in essence separate companies.
'It may be one reason it was not a very quick project,' said Otto Willenbockel, GM Powertrain's engineering director for engines and a transplant from Opel. 'We know how to design engines, but not how to design engines together with two or three organizations.'
Another reason to bring together the subsidiaries: None trusted the others to produce an engine suitable for the group.
'I think there was opposition to giving the whole project to somebody else to decide what is good ,' Willenbockel said.
'Essentially, the Europeans design for maximum speed and best cruising feel, while the U.S. wants the best launch torque with the best possible fuel economy,' said Al Landosky, advanced powertrain engineering manager for Saturn. Satisfying both 'took some bloodletting.'
Lotus, an engineering services company separate from the carmaking business, supplied more than 200 of the engine's 250 full-time engineers.
Lotus was once a GM possession, but Romano Artioli, creator of the revived Bugatti brand, purchased it from GM in 1993.
Artioli took the money-losing Lotus off GM's hands with the stipulation that GM keep the company busy with work for two years after the sale. GM was scrambling to find work for Lotus when the engine project was born.
'We hired Lotus because we had some obligation to spend some money there,' Willen-bockel said. 'On the other hand, we needed resources, we needed designers, we needed engineers, we needed dynos. As it turns out, it was an excellent idea to get somebody outside of Opel Engineering and outside of (GM) Powertrain engineering.'
SATURN TWIN CAM
GM nearly pulled the project from Lotus when it looked as though Korea's Daewoo Motor Co. Ltd., then on the outs with GM, would purchase the company from Artioli. But Malaysian automaker Proton eventually won out, and the engine program stayed.
L850 is GM's internal code-name for the engine, but the company prefers 'Saturn Twin Cam' in North America and 'Ecotec' elsewhere.
The first version is a 2.2-liter engine making 137 hp and 147 pounds-feet of torque for the 2000 Saturn LS sedan and LW wagon. Future versions will displace 1.8 liters and 2.0 liters and come with turbochargers, direct injection and variable valve timing.
GM is relying heavily on the engine. The company eventually will build up to 1.2 million units a year. GM estimates that its North American operations and subsidiaries worldwide will use the L850 and its derivatives for the next 20 years.
Production began this summer in Tonawanda, N.Y., and the engine will begin rolling off an identical assembly line next year in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Two more factories in the United States and Latin America may launch production later.
From the start of the program, the Americans and Europeans had to deal with on-the-job culture clashes.
For example, GM Powertrain engineers call meetings to ramble over the day's issues so managers can make decisions later. Opel uses its much shorter meetings to 'confirm what is already decided,' Willenbockel said.
GM and Opel engineers also sparred over the engine's design from the first technical meeting in 1994. For three days, 24 top engineers from Opel, GM Powertrain and Saab met in a room to hash out the engine's basic specifications.
What they did was 'bang their heads into each other,' said GM Powertrain's Jay Subhedar, one of the L850's project managers.
If there was strife, it stems largely from the fact that so much rides on the engine, said Walter Schnittger of Opel, the engine's ranking engineer.
Moreover, the development team was under constant scrutiny from above, he noted.
'The big organizations were watching us very closely, and sometimes we felt a bit like gladiators in an arena,' Subhedar said.
Eventually they agreed to build a four-cylinder, double overhead cam 16-valve gasoline engine with port fuel injection and an aluminum head and block.
That is a proven industry formula for the small-car market - a formula that has allowed Japanese automakers such as Honda and Toyota to gain a hammerlock on that segment.
Moreover, four-cylinder engines are critical products in almost every market of the world, said Willenbockel.
'There is some potential for General Motors to get a higher volume in the four-cylinder mid-sized car business,' he said. 'Maybe we just need a better engine.'
Still to be worked out, however, were thousands of details needed to manufacture a competitive powertrain.
The engineers argued over compression ratios and fuel injection patterns, valve seat designs and cam profiles, connecting rod materials and casting techniques.
They argued about whether the thermostat should be at the water pump's inlet or outlet (it's at the inlet), the type of spark plugs and the transmission gear ratios.
They even argued about the need for an oil pan strong enough to pulverize a chunk of Minnesota highway ice.
'All this took considerable discussion,' Schnittger said. 'In Europe you don't expect to run into a block of ice.'
Engine tests caused yet another debate. In Europe, engineers typically test engines by simulating long, high-speed cruising. But to simulate the way American suburbanites drive, GM Powertrain has developed the 'Granny Cycle.' It tortures engines by running them only for short periods over hundreds of hours, never allowing their fluids to warm fully. In the end, the engineers compromised by cherry-picking the toughest tests from all of the subsidiaries.
It was a pattern of compromise that eventually steered the engine toward completion. Opel got its higher compression ratios, while Saturn got its lower gears.
'We are all engineers and in some way we think very similarly,' Schnittger said.
'What we learned is that there is not only one truth but different approaches that all lead to the same target.'