DETROIT – Chrysler Group, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. are firm believers in the “halo” value of low-volume performance vehicles.

These so-called niche vehicles can generate a disproportionate amount of highly desired “street cred” in relation to the investment in the operations that make them.

But because customers who buy the vehicles from these in-house “tuner” divisions have lofty expectations, there is little room for development errors – or the time to fix them – say powertrain-development representatives for Ford’s Specialty Vehicle Team (SVT), GM’s High-Performance Vehicle Operations (HPVO) and Chrysler’s Street & Racing Technology (SRT) in a special session at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress here.

Apart from Ford’s SVT, which has been in existence since 1992, these niche-vehicle operations still are in the fledgling stage, and as such continue to be refined and adjusted to deliver the best vehicles within a business environment that is not always friendly to the needs of low-volume manufacturing and development.

Jim Minneker, group engineering manager-HPVO Powertrain, says suppliers, for example, often are not geared to deal with lots of 10,000 vehicles or less – the volume limit to fit the definition of a “niche” program, says Terry Wagner, Ford’s manager-Modular Engine Dept., V-Engine.

Equally difficult, says Minneker, some suppliers simply are not interested in contracts for such miniscule production runs. And within the auto maker itself, the engines often are viewed as potential “detractors to quality.”

He says GM HPVO’s powertrain unit has a dedicated purchasing agent to grease the supplier-base skids and has applied the same quality-control standards to its HPVO low-volume engine assembly operation – where each of the maximum 15,000 engines assembled annually are hand-built – that are in place at every GM Powertrain plant.

Wagner says the challenge often is the constant “get it perfect – fast” philosophy that typically dominates niche-vehicle development programs, such as that for its recent Ford GT supercar.

Wagner says Ford has initiated special product-development and testing practices to find shortcuts that save time. But he says Ford engineers are driving for new advances in computer-assisted design (CAD) and computer-assisted engineering (CAE) and other development tools. He says the company also needs to enhance supplier relationships for low-volume production programs.

Pete M. Gladysz, manager-SRT Powertrain, says a typical powertrain development cycle for an SRT product is about 24 months, as opposed to 48 months in a conventional production-vehicle development program. He also says sometimes meager funding has SRT powertrain engineers searching for innovative solutions. In the case of the 6.1L OHV V-8 “Hemi” development for various SRT-8 vehicles, engineers found low-cost manufacturing solutions.

They “borrowed” and retooled the idled V-6 assembly line at Chrysler’s Trenton, MI, plant and also retooled the mothballed crankshaft line at the company’s Saltillo, Mexico, site that also builds the high-volume 5.7L variants of the Hemi V-8.

Gladysz says that despite the relative success of the expanding SRT lineup, “it’s not perfect,” and certain elements of SRT development programs could have gone better. Chrysler currently is working to improve production ramp-up time and to find better ways for SRT to “fit in” with conventional corporate development processes, he says.

bvisnic@wardsauto.com