GM Dials Down 3-Cylinder Push in China
In an attempt to counter plunging sales in China, General Motors is listening to its dealers to provide more desirable engine choices—even if they aren’t as fuel-efficient.
Some Buick and Chevy models had dropped 4-cylinder engines altogether in favor of 3-cylinder mills to help meet China’s strict fuel economy and emissions regulations. But the strategy has been unpopular with consumers, who claim the smaller engines are noisier and not as smooth, Reuters reports.
GM’s China sales fell 10% in 2018 after peaking the prior year at 4.04 million vehicles. The drop-off accelerated last year with a 15% slide to a 7-year low of 3.09 million units.
Last year’s decline nearly doubled the overall market slowdown in China, which saw car sales shrink 8% after years of meteoric growth.
What’s Behind GM’s Fall?
The carmaker had plenty of new metal to market. It rolled out 20 new or refreshed models last year in China. And more are on the way, including crossovers, luxury sedans and several electrified vehicles.
Dealers are putting at least some of the blame for the under-performing sales on 3-cylinder engines.
The decision to focus exclusively on downsized engines was "too quick, too radical and lacked sophisticated planning," an unidentified Buick sales manager in Shanghai tells Reuters.
Many factors likely contributed to GM’s slipping fortunes in China.
But it is interesting to note that the 2018 launch of the carmaker’s 1.0- and 1.3-liter 3-cylinder Ecotec engines directly corresponds with the sales slide. The turbocharged dual-injection powerplants are about 10% more fuel-efficient than the 1.4- and 1.5-liter four-bangers that they replaced.
The lack of enthusiasm for vehicles powered by the smaller engines underscores that fuel efficiency is only one of many attributes considered during the purchase decision.
Dealers took notice and lobbied the carmaker to change. As a result, GM now plans to reinstate 4-cylinder engines in several upcoming Buick and Chevy models.
But expectations should be tempered. The China Assn. of Automobile Manufacturers is forecasting sales to slip another 2% this year.
Dan Nicholson is vice president of General Motors Global Propulsion Systems, the organization that had been “GM Powertrain” for 24 years.
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