On paper the plan looks brilliant. Design a van to sell in both North America and Europe, leverage a global supply base that is beginning to feel comfortable with a once-chaotic purchasing system and build them all in one assembly plant with a local union that is just glad to see a second shift again.
But mix Opel engineers with their counterparts fromCorp.'s Midsize Car Div., add the divergent marketing visions of Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile, and you've got a recipe for some serious miscommunications.
"When we started out not only didn't we speak the same language, but the cultural differences were even more dramatic," says Vehicle Line Executive Fred J. Schaafsma. "On the marketing side, it was an unnatural act for Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile to work together."
So far, despite more than a few bumps long the way, it seems to have worked.
"Initially, working with Opel was an arm's length, room-filled-with-anxiety kind of "relationship," recalls David A. Hansen, now category director of Chevrolet's truck brands and Chevy's former chief engineer.
The core dilemma: taking a vehicle that is 3 ins. (7.6 cm.) skinnier thanCorp.'s market-leading minivans (to accommodate Europe's narrower roads and cozier garages) and make it roomy enough to please space-hungry Americans.
"We (the Americans) were on the inside of the van pushing out, and the Opel people were on the outside pushing in," says Mr. Hansen.
Indeed, there was a point at which the Americans were insisting on a separate body with a wider track, a proposal eventually vetoed because of its additional tooling costs. In stepped Wayne K. Cherry, vice president of GM's North American design center who worked at Opel for about 25 years, with an idea dubbed "Project Shrink Wrap."
Patrick Furey, the lead interior designer, went back to the computer-aided design renderings and experimented with various ways of sucking the interior trim more tightly against the body structure.
For example, the old APV tucked the seat belt webbing behind the B-pillar. Leaving it exposed allows a thinner interior panel and recaptures a precious inch of space.
The headliner was redesigned to run more tightly with the contour of the roof. By using only one color -- light beige -- the team created a more open impression, like painting a living room ceiling white.
After each space-saving stretch, the interior was placed before consumer clinics of mostlyvan owners. They were asked to compare the interior space to their own minivans. The grades improved, but still fell short of Chrysler.
If GM has learned anything from its woeful APV experience it is that minivans must be sculpted from the inside out. Designers seeking to make a futuristic visual impact need not apply.
Mundane items like mesh storage nets that stretch across pockets of the rear storage area, tucked near the C-pillar, as well as between the two front seats to prevent purses and baby bottles from sliding beneath the rear seat bench, are just as crucial to these consumers as horsepower.
As an incentive for reducing weight, Vehicle Chief Engineer Norman L. Pilcher came up with "the quarter-pounder club." Any employee suggestion that resulted in a 4-oz. (0.113 kg) reduction or more earned a coupon for a free Quarter Pounder at McDonald's.
"It may sound like a childish thing, but it turned out to be a lot of fun," says Mr. Pilcher. "Although people in purchasing thought it was a little strange when we first submitted the expense."
* A shorter, lighter-weight wheel wrench on the tire jack pared half a pound.
* Holes in the inner body panels around the side windows trimmed another half pound.
* Hollowing out the steering rack shaft shaved off a pound.