Fiat hopes tech will make Chrysler deal work

HIGH HOPE FOR INNOVATION Rinaldo Rinolfi has technology he says will cut fuel use by at least 10 percent. Chrysler has said it is worth $10 billion. HIGH HOPE FOR INNOVATION
Rinaldo Rinolfi has technology he says will cut fuel use by at least 10 percent. Chrysler has said it is worth $10 billion.
By Sara Gay Forden
Bloomberg News / June 25, 2009
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MILAN - Rinaldo Rinolfi may have the key to making Fiat SpA’s partnership with Chrysler Group LLC work.

The 62-year-old engineer, who designed the Fiat diesel engine in the 1990s that became an industry standard and powers some of Europe’s most energy-efficient cars, has a new invention he says will cut fuel consumption by at least 10 percent. His work is at the heart of the Fiat technology that Chrysler said was worth $10 billion when they formed the alliance.

“We needed to do something radical with the gasoline engine,’’ Rinolfi said in an interview at Fiat’s research center in Turin, the company’s headquarters.

Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of both Fiat and Chrysler, is seeking to turn around Chrysler after two previous owners failed. He has engineers flying between Detroit and Italy every other week on the project, as Fiat prepares to offer models that meet stricter consumption and emissions levels proposed by President Obama.

Fiat fumbled its first attempt to enter the US market in the 1970s, when it lacked a big dealer network and earned a reputation for selling clunkers. Marchionne now has to prove that Fiat-made cars need fewer repairs and have technology Americans cannot find elsewhere, in addition to persuading consumers to swap more powerful engines for fuel efficiency.

Rinolfi’s MultiAir engine uses an electronic hydraulic-valve lift system that allows the engine to automatically adjust the amount of airflow to cylinders without the use of a traditional throttle valve. In addition to saving fuel, it reduces carbon emissions by at least 10 percent, he said.

In the traditional engine, the valves that pump air into the chambers open fully, regardless of how fast the car is moving. Even if the car is coasting and needs less power to keep momentum, air and fuel get in and energy is wasted.

“For years, engines have lost energy in this pumping process,’’ said Rinolfi, vice president of Fiat Powertrain Research & Development. His team spent $100 million in a decade developing the engine at the center in Turin.

The MultiAir project stalled between 2000 and 2005 during the Italian company’s joint venture with General Motors Corp., because GM did not want to invest in the technology, Rinolfi said. In 2001, Fiat sold a license to Schaeffler Group, a German components maker, to raise research funds, Rinolfi said. When the GM alliance was dissolved in 2005, Marchionne set up Fiat Powertrain and told Rinolfi to go forward independently.

Marco Santino, a consultant with A.T. Kearney in Rome, says MultiAir can be mounted on different engines without having to redesign them.

Bayerische Motoren Werke AG and Honda Motor Co. also have worked on valve control of airflow. BMW added “fully variable valve technology’’ in 2001, spokesman Wieland Bruch said. The Munich-based company is introducing its next upgrade to the system this week, he said.

Tokyo-based Honda developed a valve-control process called VTEC in 1989. Raj Johal, a Honda spokesman in London, confirmed that the company’s process does not run valves individually and declined to comment further.

The new MultiAir engines will probably cost about $1,400 each, the same as a diesel engine, Close said.