General Motors' efforts to design a global four-cylinder engine called the L850 may have permanently changed the company's product engineering culture.
For the first time, GM's international subsidiaries jointly developed a key product for worldwide markets. Adam Opel AG, Saab Automobile AB, GM-Holden's Automotive Ltd. of Australia, and GM's North American Powertrain division all contributed to the project.
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 to develop an engine for future small- and mid-sized Opels, Saabs, Vauxhalls, Saturns and Chevrolets.
Over the five-year design process, engineers were forced to act as politicians, diplomats and warriors, according to executives at Opel and GM Powertrain in Detroit.
GM's international subsidiaries have enjoyed relative independence for so long that they are, in essence, separate companies.
'This 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.'
There was another good reason to bring the subsidiaries together: none trusted any other to produce an engine suitable for the whole group.
'I think there was opposition to giving the entire project to somebody who would decide what was good for everyone else,' said Willenbockel.
'Essentially, the Europeans design for maximum speed and best cruising feel, while the USA wants the best launch torque with the best possible fuel economy,' said Al Londosky, advanced powertrain engineering manager for GM's Saturn division in the USA. Satisfying both 'took some bloodletting.'
Although L850 is the engine's internal code name, GM actually prefers calling it 'Saturn Twin Cam' in North America and 'Ecotec' elsewhere.
The first version - a 2.2-liter, 137hp engine - debuts in the USA this year in 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 has gambled heavily on the L850. The company plans to eventually produce up to 1.2 million units a year. It estimates that subsidiaries worldwide will have to live off the L850 and derivatives for at least the next 20 years.
Production began this summer in Tonawonda, New York, and virtually the same engine will begin rolling off an identical assembly line next year in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Two more factories in the USA and Latin America may launch production later.
From the start of the program, the Europeans and Americans had to deal with on-the-job culture clashes. Challenges were obvious to all from the very first L850 technical meeting in 1994. For three days, 24 top engineers from GM Powertrain, Opel and Saab met in a room to determine the L850's basic specifications.
What they did was 'bang their heads into each other,' said Jay Subhedar, one of the L850's project managers.
Eventually, they agreed to build a four-cylinder, double overhead cam 16-valve gasoline engine with port fuel injection and aluminum castings for the cylinder head and two-piece block.
It is a proven industry formula that has been siphoning off GM customers to Honda, Toyota and other competitors for years. Still to be worked out, however, were thousands of details needed to manufacture a competitive engine. Everyone had their own ideas based on their own past experiences and perceived market needs.
The engineers clashed 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, and what type of spark plugs it should use. They discussed the gear ratios in the automatic and manual transmissions, and how to make an oil pan that meets weight targets but is strong enough to pulverize a chunk of road ice.
'All this took considerable discussion,' said Walter Schnittger of Opel, the engine's ranking engineer. 'In Europe you don't expect to run into a block of ice.'
Engines built in North America and Europe will share 85 percent of their parts, but there will be differences. Gearing of the US engines will be substantially lower to suit the tastes of American drivers, who like quick getaways from the stoplight. Also, European units will run a 10-to-1 compression ratio while US counterparts will be limited to 9.5-to-1 compression.
It was one compromise necessary to accommodate some of the cut-priced gasolines available in the USA.
Testing the engine was another issue of debate. In Europe, testing typically prioritizes simulation of long, high-speed cruising. But to simulate the way a typical American drives, 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 fully warm. This quickly reveals items that will wear prematurely from repeated short hops.
In the end, the engineers compromised by 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; Saturn got its lower gears.
'We are all engineers and in some ways we think very similarly,' said Schnittger. 'What we learned is that there is not only one truth. There are different approaches that all lead to the same target.'