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  • Interview: Rick Spina, GM Executive Chief Engineer, Crossovers and SUVs

Interview: Rick Spina, GM Executive Chief Engineer, Crossovers and SUVs

Interview

Gary Witzenburg
Mar 5, 2019
Photographers: Courtesy of Chevrolet
Because he grew up in New Jersey and earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton and an MBA at Harvard, Rick Spina jokingly calls himself an “East Coast Ivy League snob.” He summered with his family in the New York Adirondacks, “playing with dirt bikes and sailboats,” and he got into cars as an early teenager after trading a cord of firewood for a broken-down 1954 Chevrolet. “My parents desperately hoped that I would not get it running,” he says with a chuckle, “but it took me just about a month to get it running. And I’ve been a car guy ever since.”
Spina worked briefly at a few other places before landing at General Motors in 1984, when he was in his early 20s. He has worked his way through increasing levels of responsibility, including director of Truck Chassis Systems, vehicle line executive for Full-Size Trucks, and vice president of GMNA Quality. Currently, he is the executive chief engineer over all GM crossovers. Yet he still loves old cars, and his “best” hobby is working on his 1958 Oldsmobile Super 88 convertible. We chatted with him by phone soon after testdriving Chevrolet’s all-new 2019 Blazer.
Photo 2/12   |   Interview Rick Spina
Truck Trend: We’ve called the Blazer RS the “Camaro of Crossovers” for its frontal styling and impressive twisty road handling.
Rick Spina: It’s gratifying that you see where we were trying to go. We have felt good about this car—its dynamics especially—through most of its development, so were smiling before we handed you the keys. Doing crossovers for living and watching the market, it is getting bigger and much more diversified. So the idea was, “Can we do a Camaro-like midsize SUV, and is there a spot for it in our lineup and within the market?” And we know there is, but not the persona that people think about when they hear the name Blazer. We have not had a direct two-row competitor to the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Murano, Ford Edge, and others for a few years, and those all sell in pretty good volumes. Then the question is, how to differentiate. If you differentiate with emotion, that usually gets you sales. The emotions in this size SUV tend to be super-practical—the best way to haul my family and stuff, and off-road rugged—but we decided to go this way. We think it’s a more sophisticated approach to create emotion than going head-on at the rugged side. And as midsize sedans cool off, where will people who still like solid ride and handling go? We said the natural place is SUVs. The command view of the road, the ability to go to Home Depot, all those things are important, but if we could put that into a fun-to-drive and good-looking package, that’s where we saw it.
Photo 3/12   |   Interview Rick Spina Chevrolet Blazer Rs
TT: What were its primary design and development goals?
RS: In this case, we started with an emotion-based visual concept. Our styling people asked, “What can we do for a contemporary, exciting, sporty-looking crossover?” They created a vision model for us, and we got enthused and said, “What character, ride and handling, and powertrains would we put with these visuals? And how many customers would be out there?” The goal became to get a car that delivers what it looks like, with ride, handling, and character to meet the styling, yet practical. Can I fit the teenagers in back, or mom and dad? Can I go to Home Depot? Can I pull my boat up the ramp? We went after more structure, because we always go after more structure, and how to keep the tire patch square to the road on an SUV that’s heavier than a typical sedan, then started packing in the hardware necessary to do that.
TT: What about the challenge of balancing performance versus fuel efficiency?
RS: Yes, for sure. For tire rolling resistance, our challenge was the 21-inch tire. Bigger tires inherently roll with more friction, so could we come up with a tire with the right balance of ride, handling, wet traction, dry traction, and rolling resistance? And aerodynamics is a big deal. The back end of an SUV is almost as important as the front, and we were able to do a lot of tuning on the back end because, with no third row, we didn’t have to leave it very vertical. We could round it out a little more than we do on a high-utility SUV where we’re trying to maximize every cubic foot. And the 3.6L engine, especially, has a lot of advanced technology, so its fuel consumption isn’t bad for an engine that makes 308 hp. Also, the donor architecture was very good in mass efficiency.
Photo 4/12   |   Interview Rick Spina Blazer Rs
TT: It shares its architecture and powertrain with the Cadillac XT5 and GMC Acadia?
RS: Yes. We took the track out a bit to move the wheels further out for a more muscular look. The engine is our Gen II V-6 with better combustion design, better fuel efficiency, and better noise, vibration, and harshness than the previous 3.6L, plus available cylinder deactivation.
TT: What were the toughest challenges?
RS: When we push the wheels outboard, we have more unsprung mass out there so we’re more likely to get smooth-road shake or power hop because the drive axles are longer. Also, how to control that suspension that is hung out further in space in a crash. For example, in certain crash conditions, the way the tire tucks into the front of dash helps absorb energy to protect the occupants. But when we push it out farther, we have to manage that energy differently.
TT: What would you say is this new Blazer’s most important competitive advantage?
RS: I think it can give you more smiles per mile than the others. It can do the carpool and run to the doctor, then you can go out and hammer it on some curves if you want to. And then when you wash it, you’ll just smile at it. That’s what we’re going for.

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