Saturday, January 16, 2021

A personal reflection about the end of Ford car manufacturing in Brazil

Earlier this week, Ford has announced it was phasing out its 3 manufacturing units still active in Brazil, to have its entire range comprising of imported models and allign itself with the truck-oriented business it's already implementing on a global basis. Some ignorants who dislike President Jair Bolsonaro are blaming him for a strategic decision that only Ford had something to do, unlike what happened to GM in Venezuela where its assets were seized by Nicolás Maduro's narco-dictatorship in 2017. It's also worth to notice Ford did not seem to really care about the Brazilian market, where it insisted in a strategy that proven itself not so suitable to the local needs, and its business model on a global basis still seems to revolve around the old body-on-frame layout which is roughly unchanged for a long time.

Ford keeping its manufacturing operations in Argentina, where nowadays the Ranger is the only model made locally, is also deeply rooted on the same mindset of the days when the Model T was Ford's only product including the overseas assembly plants. Sure a lot of technical features of the vehicles and the manufacturing methods evolved in a timeframe of more than 100 years, but it's impossible to deny the conceptual similarities between a relatively modern truck and one of the least expensive cars from the Brass Era. Even though some technical revolutions happened in the meantime when it comes to brakes, suspensions, transmissions and steering gear, there is no way to overlook the longitudinally-mounted engine driving the rear wheels through a leaf-sprung solid axle (which remains the usual drive even on 4-wheel drive versions with independent front suspension) in a body-on-frame as a reminiscence of the old times.

The closure of the São Bernardo do Campo plant in 2019, where the Cargo trucks and regional variants of the chassis-cab Super Duty used to be made, was actually more surprising, as both ranges stilll relied on the jalopy-ish layout which Ford seems to remain more comfortable to work around. Among claims of a shrinking market share due to competition and the cost to upgrade from Euro-5 to Euro-6, which is the dumbest excuse since Brazilian-made Ford trucks had been fitted only with Cummins engines since late-2005, it's also relevant to notice Turkish-made versions of the Ford Cargo are (re)making their way into Western Europe which is a highly competitive market. The demand for logistic services after the 2020 outbreak of the Chinese Covid-19 Coronavirus increased the e-commerce in Brazil also means the timing for the phaseout on local truck manufacturing was a highly regrettable move.

The reliance on the 3rd-generation Ka and 2nd-generation EcoSport which were made in the Camaçari plant located in the metropolitan area of Salvador de Bahia for larger sales volumes, with the Ka being more appealing to the fleet market than for retail customers while the EcoSport was losing much of its market share because of the increased competition, apparently was not a valid excuse for the closure of the Camaçari plant where Ford had introduced 3-cylinder 1.0L and 1.5L engines manufacture rendering much of the output of the Taubaté powertrain-oriented plant quite redundant. Both models relying on an obsolete platform, plus the Ka being made only in Brazil and India having been phased out in Europe in 2019 due to poor sales, were pointed out as a reason for the phaseout of Brazilian production which had not been as competitive on export markets as their Indian counterparts. However, it's worth to remind a tax break which has led to the Camaçari plant opening in 2000 has expired on late-2020, so Ford was looking for a government handout in order to keep operating at a claimed loss in Bahia, even though the EcoSport still seemed to be in line with a truck and SUV-oriented business model.

Ford has also planned to close the Troller factory, a small-scale and off-road oriented plant located in Horizonte, a city in the metropolitan region of Fortaleza in the Ceará state, which it had bought in 2007 looking for a tax break for companies with operations in the Brazilian Northeast (Nordeste as we say in Brazil). From what used to be described as a fiberglass copy of some previous generation of the Jeep Wrangler to the 2nd generation riding on a shortened version of the 2012 Ranger chassis released in 2014, the T4 has been the most known Troller and through most of its production run the only actual Troller model. Considering its history as an independent company from '95 to 2007 and the cult-following among the 4WD enthusiasts in Brazil, the Troller division seems to be quite an easy asset for Ford to sell before its closure scheduled to late-2021, even though it seems more likely for Ford to be actually willing to shutdown this operation instead of turning it into an eventual competitor in the SUV market.

Even though the focus (no pun intended) on SUVs has led Ford to outsource its new Territory entirely to its Chinese partner JMC, going as far as resorting to a copy of the ancient Mitsubishi 4G15 engine with few changes such as turbocharging, its shutdown on local manufacturing in Brazil to concentrate on imports while the Argentinian operation keeps going despite political unrest diminishes considerably the trust of Brazilian customers on Ford. Even though such attempt to increase the profitability per unit instead of volume may seem easy at a first glance, a brand which had never been regarded as a specialty devoted to high-end models is likely to face a hard time trying to reposition it as somewhat premium. So, despite being quite predictable due to an inefficient business model on a worldwide basis, the end of manufacturing operations in the largest country of South America is unlikely to benefit Ford at all.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Opel Corsa B, the unsung hero

Even though it's now seem as outdated even in the regions where it soldiered on for longer than its first run from '93 to '00 in Western Europe, the Opel Corsa B was one of the greatest GM cars of the '90s in a worldwide basis. Despite its absence in the United States and Canada where it was simpler to keep the strategy of selling a rebadged Suzuki within its size class, the first vehicle to challenge the Volkswagen Beetle in the Mexican market as a serious contender was the Opel Corsa B, rebadged there as Chevrolet Chevy and initially sourced from Spain before CKD assembly from Brazilian parts and ultimately made with an increased local content. Nobody will ever know exactly what prevented the Corsa to become an option for American customers too, but most likely the cost of certification while the rebadged Suzukis were already there.

A very dependable model, even though its appearance could suggest otherwise, the Opel Corsa B was also rebadged as a Chevrolet in South America where it used to be made in Brazil and Argentina, with CKD kits having been supplied from Brazil even in RHD format to South Africa where it retained the Opel branding while being fitted with more rugged engines than its European counterparts and received the Brazilian facelift from '00 to '09. Simple mechanics made it very dumbproof, even though electronic fuel injection had been a first-in-class in some markets such as Brazil where the Chevrolet Corsa was introduced in '94. The relatively modern European styling matched to some degree of ruggedness which remains as a desirable feature in Latin America, Africa and Middle East rendered the Corsa B closer to a Beetle replacement than much of Volkswagen's offering.

A sedan version had even been developed in Brazil catering to developing markets where this bodystyle is often seen as preferable over the hatchbacks which were more prevalent in Europe. To a certain point, the availability of a sedan/saloon seriously impacted the market share for the 4-door hatchback, while the 2-door hatchback remained quite competitive in a more budget-oriented approach which helped it to become a contender to the Volkswagen Beetle in Mexico. This very same bodystyle had been also made in China and assembled from CKD kits in India and South Africa.

With fewer changes and a budget-oriented approach, the sedan has soldiered on in South America until 2016, already rebadged as Chevrolet Classic and fitted only with a flexfuel 1.0L engine according to the Brazilian "people's car" program, while Argentina had a 1.4L gasoline-only engine. Still easy to spot on most Latin American medium and big cities, the Opel Corsa B is certainly an unsung hero from those times when GM was greater than any other automaker on earth. Even though the original Opel design may lead a few stubborn rednecks to not consider it Chevrolet-ish enough, the Corsa B was certainly among the greatest responses to both developed and developing markets and their needs.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Peruvian-style tuk-tuk converted into a panel van

Even though passenger transport with tuk-tuks is still quite a taboo in my homeland Brazil, they've been reasonably sought after by entrepreneurs who need an affordable option for short-distance hauling and a small payload in the urban environment where low speed is not a problem at all. While the Piaggio Ape and its many copies usually sourced from India and China are a rare sight in Brazil, it's not so unusual to spot makeshift tricycles converted from small-displacement motorcycles and a small amount of those Chinese purpose-built tricycles with a fully-exposed cockpit or a simple front fairing and roof without a side enclosure. The location of the engine and fuel tank inside the rider's cabin requires it to be open to the environment, and it also applies to the Peruvian passenger-transport models even though they have a canvas enclosure around the rear seat. In this one converted into a panel van, an all-metal cargo box is installed on the rear section, with an all-metal roof also extending over the rider's area which was also fitted with metal half-doors. Unlike other tricycle types which often have both rear wheels driven, and often resort to a shaft-drive the Peruvian-style ones have only the left rear wheel which is chain-driven just like the sole rear wheel of an average motorcycle such as the 125cc and 150cc ones usually resorted as a parts donor for the assembly of tuk-tuks in Peru.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

In defense of Ford's CHT engine?

Ford failed in Brazil a lot of times due to the lack of a long-term planning for its engines range to meet the local market conditions, and the Escort Mk.3 which was the first one introduced officially to Brazil had to rely on the Renault-designed Cléon-Fonte engines to which it had access after merging with the Brazilian branch of Willys-Overland with whom Régie Nationale des Usines Renault had a partnership at the time. Even though that was even better than Ford's own Kent engine fitted to some entry-level trims of the European Escort by then, it ended up being one of the most underrated engines in Brazil as competition from Chevrolet and Volkswagen evolved to the OHC layout. Even though Volkswagen's EA-827 engine series mostly known in Brazil as "AP" and more frequently referred to as "Motor Audi" in Argentina and Uruguay is often highlighted as the holy grail for reliability covering displacements between 1.6L and 2.0L while also being reasonably affordable when it comes to tuning, the good old CHT which was better known in the 1.6L displacement range even though 1.3L and later even a 1.0L variant had been available had even better reliability despite its more conservative power and torque figures often blamed on the chain-driven OHV valvetrain receiving much criticism.

It's not unusual to claim the CHT engine is the one to blame for the Escort XR-3 not having been taken so seriously as a sports car in Brazil until the AutoLatina joint-venture with Volkswagen provided Ford with the AP engine, yet the unsuitability to expand the CHT over 1.6L was much more of a real issue. Ford really got a hard hit from the '73 oil crisis in Brazil due to bad planning, including the usage of the F-Head Willys Hurricane engine in Brazilian versions of the Maverick instead of the Thriftpower Six which was available in Argentina powering the Falcon and the F-100 which used to rely only on the V8 engines in Brazil until the Lima OHC became available in Brazil only in the 2.3L displacement and also resorting to natural aspiration and carburettor while export-bound variants could be had with EFI and even turbocharging. In trouble, the Brazilian branch was saved by a combination of engine exports to the United States, the creation of the F-1000 which was basically a higher-GVWR F-100 with a Diesel engine available (while the Argentinian-sourced Thriftpower Six was not so sought after), and naturally the Escort to which the CHT engine already on the parts bin was a reasonable option not requiring the expenses of a tooling update to manufacture the CVH engine fitted to its European and American counterparts.

A cheap engine to manufacture, and nearly indestructible while also quite easy to overhaul due to its wet-sleeve layout, the Renault Cléon-Fonte on which the CHT is based was successfully tuned to high power and torque ratings in Europe, being widely used for rallying and other demanding motorsports even behind the Iron Curtain where some derivatives were made by Dacia in Romania before it merged with Renault. Even though it's often pointed out as "inferior" and "outdated", mostly due to the lack of an aftermarket support so focused on performance enhancements, the CHT engine was better than what it's often regarded in Brazil, with its low-end torque still being appreciated despite featuring a lower specific power within the 1.6L displacement range compared to what Volkswagen and Chevrolet had to offer in Brazil during the '80s. Had it not fell so out of favor between '86 and '96 when AutoLatina was in effect, sure the CHT could've proven its worth, and eventually could fare better than the Kent-based Endura-E supplied from Spain from '96 to 2000 in 1.0L and 1.3L variants along the 1.4L Zetec-SE once the Fiesta started being made in Brazil, and then presumably with the fitment of a sequential EFI and other fewer improvements it would not surprise me the CHT could save Ford in Brazil again...

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Why could the concept of a single-clutch automated-manual transmission be still relevant?

There were times when a very same car could differ considerably from a region to another regarding the availability of automatic transmissions, even for models with a broader "World's car" appeal such as the Toyota Corolla. At its 9th generation (E120), it resorted to a narrower bodyshell for both the European and Japanese markets, even though the lower demand for automatic transmissions in Europe rendered it more suitable to make an automated-manual transmission available instead. As it retained the coupling through friction from a regular manual instead of resorting to a hydraulic torque converted usually fitted to conventional automatics, gear changes are often more noticeable according to the driver's behavior, which might seem more annoying to a Japanese or American more used to a greater smoothness that a single-clutch automated-manual transmission is reportedly unable to provide.

While both the evolution of conventional automatics, CVTs and the arrival of the dual-clutch automated transmissions could sound like the end of the road for a single-clutch AMT, it retains a foothold on the commercial vehicles segment. Considering aspects such as purchasing price, maintenance schedule and concerns related to the impact of an automatic transmission on both fuel consumption and payload, the simpler layout of an automated-manual seems more appealing to fleet managers and owner-operators in countries such as Brazil where the commercial vehicles market is highly conservative. Even though the rougher operation and usage of a conventional clutch which still needs replacements through the useful operating life of a truck such as the Volkswagen Constellation or a bus such as the Volkswagen 17.230 OD may sound disadvantageous compared to an automatic transmission, maintenance procedures more similar to what most commercial operators are comfortable with is likely to render them more favorable to a single-clutch automated-manual transmission.
It's also worth to remind some claims of longer clutch life due to clutchless gear changes which happen more frequently, and a lower fuel consumption because of the automatic selection of the more suitable gear according to traffic and terrain conditions, at a cost premium not as high as for an automatic and a lower increase to the curb weight of the vehicle. The increased precision of the newer electronic engine management systems has also led to the viability of a more accurated and better integrated transmission control, preventing driver errors such as over-revving which is detrimental to the fuel consumption. It's worth to remind the viability to expand the concept of single-clutch automated-manual transmissions to nearly any vehicle with a modern engine electronic management system, rendering it an effective way to increase comfort, durability and fuel-efficiency even for vehicles which were never available with an automatic transmission, to the point that even modern versions of the classic Lada Niva with sequential port-injection and distributorless ignition could benefit from this feature.

Besides the lower cost comparing a single-clutch automated-manual transmission to both an automatic or a dual-clutch transmission, rendering it a good option for emerging markets where the economics of scale can be favored by sharing most components with the regular manual transmissions on cars such as the Volkswagen Fox, it's also noticeable the failures on single-clutch AMTs is usually more related to electro-hydraulic actuators than to the internals of the gearbox or the clutch pack, while for dual-clutch transmissions it's not unusual to have clutch pack failures which may damage the entire transmission. A simpler approach may not provide all the advantages from its more sophisticated counterparts, such as the claimed seamless and faster shift which rendered DCTs widely praised, but a lower overall cost is worth to consider. So, even though it might not be always understood by the average Joe, the concept of a single-clutch automated-manual transmission is still relevant.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

Dettachable refrigerated module for Brazilian car-based trucklets

Mostly due to size and purchase price concerns, car-based trucklets such as the previous-generation Fiat Strada are taken seriously as a work vehicle in Brazil. The agility of a small vehicle on the heavy urban traffic benefits the operation with small loads, however the monocoque body becomes troublesome to fit special load compartments which would handle more efficiently either a slightly larger amount of the refrigerated items or allow a better integration to the stock vehicle. Resale value is also often taken as a priority, and dealing with the removal of a specialized truck body to fit another more appealing to the average Joe is as much as a matter of concern as the cost of the refrigeration equipment. A detachable refrigerated module which fits inside the pick-up box, eventually being titled as an "interchangeable body", makes it easier to address with the needs and preferences of many commercial operators who require a more compact vehicle and are not willing to compromise much of its original features once the time comes for resale.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Volare 4X4 - Brazilian 4WD minibus

Brazilian countryside can be rough, and the same may often apply to the outskirts of big cities or other operating scenarios that may require a more specialized approach for a job to get done. Initially catering to the school bus segment, Marcopolo's subsidiary Volare developed the Volare 4X4 in partnership with Agrale and benefitting from the 4-wheel drive experience Agrale had even before it started producing the Marruá utility vehicle series.
With a Cummins ISF3.8 engine and a 5-speed manual transmission, and a dual-range transfer case, the Volare 4X4 also found its way on segments other than rural school buses, also being possible to spot it on construction sites and other demanding off-road environments. The articulated rear bumper means it can have a rear overhang more similar to a normal 2-wheel drive model, while still allowing a greater departure angle while off-roading.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Possibly the last remaining International KB-1 from my hometown

Took these pictures in August 2011, and since then I had only seen it again a handful of times while passing in front of an apartment complex where it could be seen from the street at the carport.
Pictures don't show it, but it had a Ford steering wheel, which considering how hard it might be to find spare parts for its stock Blue Diamond engine might suggest a repowering with either a Ford 221 "Falcon Six" or some MWM Diesel engine fitted to a Brazilian derivative of the F-Series, even though I have never seen it running in order to identify by the engine sound if it's a gasser or a Diesel.

Monday, October 19, 2020

4 features I consider hard to explain regarding Volvo's T8 hybrid powertrain

I must confess hybrids are not exactly my cup of tea, even though it seems like there is no turning back from them anymore. Some models such as the Volvo V60 now don't even offer a turbodiesel anymore, and it even became more frequent to see a hybrid than a gasoline-only version, which is also leading to an opportunity to take a look at some features that might be hard to explain when it comes to Volvo's current approach to hybrid powertrains. Regarding the T8 rating, which is available only as a hybrid, there are at least 4 features seemingly opposed to the "environmental" approach hybrids are supposed to be all about:

1 - the "twincharger": while the engine-driven supercharger might provide a reasonable boost from launch to around 3500 RPM, and then the exhaust-driven turbocharger does all the job when it comes to forced induction, it's worth to notice the increase on parasitic drag from the supercharger and its drive, which is somewhat more objectionable as it may be desirable to keep the engine at lower load during normal operating conditions driving on the speed limits. Since the presence of the supercharger is not taken benefit to allow the engine to operate within the Miller cycle, which resorts to a longer intake timing advacing through compression stroke in order to emulate the Atkinson effect while the forced induction prevents the charge air intake to escape, eventually it would make more sense resorting to the PowerPulse system fitted to the Diesel twin-turbo D5 engines which resorts to a compressed-air impeller for the turbocharging in order to overcome turbo-lag with the air being supplied through an electric-driven compressor on board;

2 - absence of flexfuel capability: due to the "sustainability" premises, it would make sense to have a provision for the vehicle to be capable to operate on a renewable fuel along the more usual gasoline, with ethanol capability being somewhat reasonable to expect from a modern spark-ignited engine. Not only it has a cleaner combustion process, turbocharged engines fitted with direct injection provide ideal conditions to narrow the efficiency gap per fuel volume between gasoline and ethanol, as they lead to a safer increase on compression ratio while operating with gasoline and easier cold starts while running on ethanol;

3 - keeping the same automatic transmission of non-hybrid versions: while it could either take benefit from the instant torque output of electric motors to get no gearbox at all, enabling them to act as a CVT just like Toyota and Lexus hybrids usually do through their Hybrid Synergy Drive setup, or to use some other automatic or automated-manual transmission more optimized for overall efficiency, it just retains the same 8-speed automatic shared with the non-hybrid T4, T5 and T6 versions. Sure it would be harder to expect the option for a manual transmission, as an automatic leads to a smoothier transition from EV mode to combined electric and gasoline power, but other setups predictably more in line with the usual expectations for hybrids would be more favored by fuel-efficiency and emission regulations;

4 - seemingly lack of motivation to benefit from a Freevalve design: even though the mainstream automakers usually tend to take breakthrough tech with a grain of salt, most noticeably when there is a need for a licensing from a smaller engineering outlet, its hybrid range would be a perfect receiver for the Freevalve technology, not only because it would allow the usage of a simpler port-injection and to get rid of the particulate filter, but also due to eventually making it easier to alternate from 4-stroke to 2-stroke under specific conditions as the presence of the supercharger could serve to provide a more efficient scavenging just like on 2-stroke Diesel engines.

Monday, October 05, 2020

2nd-generation Peugeot 208 made in Argentina: only one engine option doesn't match regional needs and preferences

Released with a delay after its European counterpart, the Mercosur-bound version of the 2nd-generation Peugeot switched the manufacturing base from Brazil to Argentina, relying only on the old EC5 engine in an ethanol-capable flexfuel trim for the Brazilian market while other countries receive it tuned to use only gasoline. Besides the absence of a turbodiesel engine, which used to be much sought after even on compact cars in Argentina, it's also noticeable the fitment of an automatic transmission as standard and only a naturally-aspirated engine with greater displacement than its European counterparts which resort to the smaller EB2 engine available as a naturally-aspirated with manual transmission and turbocharged versions also including the option for an automatic transmission. Considering both the brand perception of Argentinians who don't really see Peugeot as somewhat premium, while in Brazil it tries to recover a prestige it used to get when imported cars flooded the local market in the early '90s attempting to take over the middle and upper-class customers, it would actually make some sense to retain the same EB2 of its European counterpart.

While the higher purchase cost of a turbodiesel inherent to the increasingly sophisticated aftertreatment becomes troublesome for a country with a severely troubled economy as Argentina is at the moment, a strong market for natural gas conversions is more favorable to the EC5 and would also be to the basic naturally-aspirated EB2 due to the usage of port-injection, instead of the direct injection which is fitted to the turbocharged variants of the smaller engine. And since the 1.2L EB2 is slotted right above a more favorable displacement class up to 1.0L for taxation purposes in Brazil, just like the 1.6L EC5 does, it could be at a first glance rendered less competitive against the direct-injection turbocharged flexfuel 1.0L engine offerings from Chevrolet, Volkswagen and Hyundai and unlikely to set a foothold as the higher manufacturing cost of a downsized engine compared to a more traditional counterpart is not so easily amortized through a tax break, even though the Mercosur agreement gives Argentinian-made cars a different tax break in Brazil. It's also worth noticing similar models from other manufacturers which are available in Brazil in 1.0L naturally-aspirated or turbocharged and larger-displacement naturally-aspirated versions only go to Argentina with the biggest engine for the very same reason, as such more favorable taxation scheme is absent there.

While a naturally-aspirated trim of the EB2 could be more valued by Argentinian customers as long as the purchase cost remained lower and a manual transmission would be retained, and some turbocharged variants would be more appreciated in Brazil due to the technology and "sportiness" appeal with a good marketing perspective for the availability of both manual and automatic transmission options, retaining the EC5 and automatic-only becomes an objectionable one-size-fits-all approach. The total absence of turbodiesel options, which could at a first moment sound quite predictable as it's not allowed for cars in Brazil and nowadays seems too expensive for a small car in Argentina, can also be counted as another mistake somehow. Overlooking all the complexity of South American car markets as a whole, ignoring specific aspects of each country in the region and how to better address such conditions, often leads to a poor decision-making which may have a troublesome reflex on the actual marketing perspectives for an otherwise good product, and right now it seems to be what happens to the 2nd-generation Peugeot 208 even though it's too soon to be sure about it failing or receiving a better-adjusted selection of engines.