When I first started out as a car journalist, the likes of Saab, Hummer, Saturn, Pontiac – hell, even Oldsmobile – were still kicking around. They were all trying their best to survive in a rapidly changing automotive world, but ultimately, they were doomed.
Numerous reasons were behind the demise of these once great automotive brands – Saab in particular for me is a sad case in point – but I guess history will show that they just simply didn’t sell enough cars. No income ultimately equals the dreaded ‘closed for business’ sign on the factory door.
But actually, it’s too simplistic just to blame a lack of action in dealer showrooms for the disappearance of these automotive players. These giants caught themselves up in a vicious circle that was hard to break. Dramatically falling sales equals reduced production that equals less demand that equals shrinking market share that equals less income that equals slashed R&D budgets that equals no new modern products.
With innovation shelved – and crucially the competition pushing forward – old architectures, engines and technologies are reused to the point where things just get embarrassing. ‘New’ cars are actually rehashed old cars, and that ‘new’ engine was actually really new 15 years ago. Just look at Rover and its desperate struggles for new architectures 15 or so years ago for the 25, 45 and 75 products.
All this came to my mind as I was catching a plane back to London from Phoenix, Arizona, where I had only arrived the day before. But the ultra-rapid 47-hour trip, just under 20 hours of which was spent in the air, was well worth it. Why? Because I had become one of the first people in the world (outside Infiniti/Nissan circles, of course) to experience the organization’s VC-T engine.
It was around this time last year that Infiniti announced to the industry that it had cracked the powertrain engineering impossible. An engine had been successfully created that had a real-world variable compression ratio – in this case of 8:1 to 14:1. I still remember the day I first learned about this landmark moment, but being sworn to secrecy by Infiniti and not being able to tell a soul.
This really was supposed to be just-can’t-be-done technology – just ask Lotus Engineering, or perhaps Saab, which was made to abandon its research project shortly after GM’s takeover at the turn of the millennium. Talk about sliding doors moments.
So there I was, on a humid November afternoon at Nissan’s Arizona Testing Center, a 3,050-acre state-of-the-art facility in the Sonoran Desert, to drive a prototype of this most important piece of IC engine technology.
And I use those words with the utmost respect to all other engineering innovations – the inventions that have come and gone, the creations that are currently changing our lives for the better, and of course ongoing work that will improve tomorrow’s world.
My time with the VC-T – housed in something I can’t write about yet (sworn to secrecy again!) – was limited to just a few hours. However, the prototype engine I spent time with in Arizona is production-ready and is really rather refined, even if the prototype vehicle I’m in isn’t…
But, and here’s the bit that matters, the technology works. And it works really well. I have written already a lot about Infiniti’s VC-T project over the past 12 months – see the January 2017 issue of ETI for an in-depth insight – so I won’t revisit old areas like how it actually works, or the challenges Infiniti engineers faced. Instead, all I’ll say is this: aside from gaining a big advantage over rival brands with this technology, Infiniti/Nissan just might have saved the IC engine as we know it. And in doing so it has secured its own future too, because innovation brings success – as those at Saab know only too well.
The next issue of ETi will bring you an exclusive feature interview on Infiniti’s
VC-T technology and how it fared during testing in Arizona!