INTERVIEW: Vauxhall's Tim Tozer hails new Astra and Ellesmere Port's resurgence

By Dave Leggett | 17 September 2015

Tim Tozer

Tim Tozer

General Motors' UK operations' chief is Vauxhall MD Tim Tozer. He tells just-auto about the brand's high hopes for the new Astra and the resurgence of the UK manufacturing plant that makes it (one of two in Europe).

The new Astra was formally launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show this week. It's an important model form GM in Europe, playing in the mass-market C-segment that is led by the VW Golf (the European car market's top selling model). Opel has engineered significant improvements on the outgoing model. The five-door model is up to 200 kilograms lighter than the previous generation model. GM says it has been comprehensively re-engineered with every component trimmed to the highest efficiency possible.

Aluminium engines are one area that has enabled substantial weight saving. The new 1.4 ECOTEC Direct Injection Turbo engine making its premiere in the Astra weighs “much less than current comparable units”. GM says its aluminium engine block alone is ten kilograms lighter than the cast-iron block of its predecessor. New generation transmissions are also claimed to come with a new compact design that saves weight.

Most importantly, GM says that a thoroughly slimmed down vehicle architecture plays a decisive role in weight loss: the bodyshell (body-in-white) and structure alone are over 20% lighter, down from 357 to 280 kilograms. Another 50 kilograms were saved in the design of chassis components: high-strength and ultra-high-strength lightweight steels, more compact subframes as well as modification to the front and rear suspensions have all contributed to the weight loss. In addition, engineers decided against full underbody paneling to further optimize the aerodynamics of chassis and drivetrain elements, resulting in a claimed “double advantage”: lower weight and reduced production costs that enable more attractive price structures for customers.

Further size- and mass-optimization measures include shorter front and rear overhangs, as well as the up to 25 percent lighter exhaust system which saves around 4.5 kilograms on this part alone, GM says. The approach has been to innovate in design throughout to optimise on weight savings.

Some clever design and engineering work means the car is more compact, but with more interior space than its predecessor. With a total length of 4.37 meters, the five-door hatchback is almost five centimetre shorter than its predecessor; its height of 1.48 meters is 2.5 centimetres lower and its width has been reduced by 0.5 centimetres to 1.81 meters. These dimensions also have a positive effect on the vehicle’s weight. At the same time, interior space is more generous. Together with the newly designed, lighter and more compact seats, rear-seat passengers now benefit from 35 millimetres more legroom than before.

Production is based at two European plants, rather than the three which built the former hatchbacks and wagon. It is made at Ellesmere Port in England's northwest, and Gliwice in Poland. The rationalisation to two plants rather than three means the end of Astra build at Rüsselsheim in Germany.

Tim Tozer, Vauxhall's managing director, beams as he surveys the new model. “We're quietly confident. It's lighter, it's more agile, more fuel efficient, it's very well specifed, well priced. It also comes with OnStar for a real leap in connectivity in a mainstream segment.”

Opel/Vauxhall is positioning its solidly mainstream, mid-market brands to offer value and a hint of premium in the equipment offered. “The car offers premium features in a mass-market segment,” Tozer maintains. “We don't claim to be a premium manufacturer. We claim to be a manufacturer making cars for families that come with Vauxhall value in everyday terms, but also offering premium technologies such as LED matrix headlamps which are truly transformational to night-time driving.”

This, Tozer believes, gets to the heart of GM's strategy in Europe. He highlights the need to invest in product. “This is very much a part of the GM story in Europe: Investing in product, leading to a future that is secure for the business in Europe, generating the right returns for shareholders and meeting demanding financial targets.”

In a UK context, he highlights the importance for Vauxhall's plant of winning the Astra bid. Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port Astra plant near Liverpool in the UK is the best General Motors Operation in Europe in terms of productivity and quality. “Four years ago Ellesmere Port was in a fight for survival. It had to win a tender against a continental European plant [Russelsheim] to keep producing vehicles, which it has now done for 51 years. It won that tender on the basis of its competitiveness, which was a team effort to secure.”

And he says the UK supplier base is now benefiting from sourcing decisions. “That now flows through to the local supplier base. We have increased the local content of the car to 25%. That amounts to an additional GBP1.4bn of business to the local supplier industry over the lifecycle of the car.”

Production of the car at Ellesmere Port is on a two-shift basis, but if things go well, a third shift could be added.

“We're planning to build around 110,000-120,000 on a two-shift basis and that's without full-year production of the Sports Tourer. That enters production around comes in April or May. So on an annualised basis that will put Ellesmere Port on close to 130,000 units of production, a very significant increase on where we are today.

“We would like ultimately to go to three shifts but we'll take it step by step; launch the car, see where it sits, see what the segment does and where we sit within it. We can't take anything for granted. It's a very competitive market, but we've got a new car and we're very proud of it.

"If we sweated the plant on three-shifts we could get output up to around 170,000 units, but we'll take it step by step.”

Tozer is realistic about the local content constraints. “There are some things you just cannot source in the UK – there is no casting foundry for alloy wheels in the country for example.”

Most of the other components come from with the EU and Tozer added that he would like a more balanced currency hedge – current one third sterling and two thirds euro. “At the moment we can benefit and it can just as easily go the other way. I would certainly be more comfortable if we could get to 50-50.”

Tozer is also apparently unconcerned about the possibility of a British exit from the EU (a national referendum will happen within the next two years and some business leaders have voiced concern). He says it would not stop GM from doing business in the UK because it is "unthinkable" that the rest of the bloc would shun a new trade deal.

With additional reporting by Chris Wright