• New Holden NZ managing director Marc Ebolo (above) with Acadia
The all-American Holden Acadia SUV brings to New Zealand a look at why General Motors paid upwards of NZ$1.5 billion two years ago for a self-driving Silicon Valley start-up called Cruise Automation.
Cruise began work on autonomous vehicles in 2013 and quickly developed an aftermarket kit that allowed buyers to convert certain cars – an Audi A3 among them – into self-drivers in controlled situations.
What GM reportedly liked about the Cruise technology was that it could easily be integrated into GM’s own autonomous projects, already a vast treasure trove of data.
GM wasn’t the only company that believed it was on to a good thing.
- Japan’s Softbank conglomerate in June invested NZ$3.35 billion in Cruise.
- Japan’s Honda last month took a 5.7 per cent stake in Cruise for NZ$1.15 billion, pledging an extra NZ$3 billion for joint GM-Honda autonomous development over the next 12 years.
- GM’s self-driving car subsidiary is now valued at NZ$22.5 billion.
Apart from autonomous vehicles, Cruise is working on a proposed rule by the US National Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA) requiring vehicle-to-vehicle communication in new cars by 2023.
This technology would communicate things like speed, direction, location, and braking status in order to warn drivers about – and help them avoid – potential car crashes, traffic snarls, hazards …
Ultimately, says GM chief executive Mary Barra (pictured above), the company is working to break down barriers for the average driver.
The seven-seat Acadia, technically the cleverest Holden yet, provides an early indication of how all this stuff will work.
Like many rival vehicles, Acadia can apply the brakes itself, provide audible and visual warnings of blind spots, potential collisions, traffic signs, school zones, pedestrians, cyclists, obstacles …
These are “small steps to full autonomy,” says the Acadia’s lead engineer, Australian Tony Metaxas.
Key to the small steps is Acadia’s Holden Eye, a camera-based collision warning system Mataxas says is the “most advanced camera in Holden to date.”
The camera also beams to the touch-screen an every-which-way, 360-degree view of the vehicle, including zeroing in on coupling a trailer.
Holden schooled it up on NZ road signs – including warning the driver of the 40km/h limit approaching school zones … another ‘small step.’
Yet another involves communication. Acadia is “first with GM’s next-generation infotainment system,” says Metaxas. It’s all there on the touch-screen interface that, after brief use in a pre-production model, seems easy to navigate.
The six-model Acadia range (three front-drive, three all-wheel drive) is built at GM’s Spring Hill plant in Tennessee and goes on sale in NZ this month.
Specification grades are LT, LTZ, LTZ-V. Prices will rock the SUV market boat in NZ – the front-drive LT lists at $49,990 and the top-range all-wheel drive LTZ-V at $71,990. The front-drive LTZ and LTZ-V have to be pre-ordered.
Acadia’s power comes from a slightly revised version of the 3.6-litre petrol V6 from the VB Commodore, good for 231kW/367Nm. It’s cleverly mated to a nine-speed automatic, a marriage that picks the right gear at the right time for refined progress.
A detactivation system can cut cylinders 2 and 5 on a light throttle to save fuel. Another fuel-saving device is a front-drive mode on all-wheel drive models – it pretty much stops the driveshaft to the rear diff spinning.
Nevertheless, Holden’s claim that Acadia can drink around 9 litres/100km is based on trials in a perfect world. Real-world driving, even on a tabletop surface, would at best be between 11 litres and 14 litres/100km.
Highlights after a few hours at the wheel of a couple of the models is the ride and handling. From the outside looking in it’s a big American critter. But once at the wheel it feels smaller.
Its refined road manners, either with or without the adaptive suspension set-up, belie its appearance. Another plus is the all-round roominess, especially generous in the second row.
Will the Acadia become Holden’s big car of choice, perhaps bumping the Commodore aside? Is it the Commodore of SUVs? Who knows? But its ride and handling alone will cause buyers to think twice.