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Volvo’s Huibers on new engines, GM partnership

By Jonathan Sweet

Volvo Penta unveiled its latest engines last week, showing off next-generation V8s and V6s at a media event in Virginia.

The new sterndrive engines are based on the General Motors Gen V platform, a stark contrast from the decision by Mercury to design and manufacture its own purpose-built sterndrive engines.

After the product intro, we talked to Ron Huibers, president of Volvo Penta of the Americas, about the new engines, the partnership and more. You can also find a video interview with Huibers here and embedded below, as well as a video walk-through of some of the features of the engine with Mel Cahoon, Volvo Penta's new products manager.

Boating Industry: Let’s start with the decision to continue working with GM. We know Mercury has decided to go a different way, so why do you think this is the best approach for Volvo Penta and for the industry?

Huibers: When you look at the history of Volvo Penta … one of the common themes of why we’ve been successful both on the diesel side and the gas is bringing innovation to the industry.

Here we came to this crossroads … and what that did for us was to say, we have a path, we have a choice. We can reverse-engineer and have somebody else build out some old engines for us with old technology or we can embrace new technology.

When we ran these engines, it became clear that this was consistent with what our strategy has been. To give people the all-around performance there was no choice – to give people reliability, to get performance that the marine industry alone couldn’t do.

In a nutshell, it was really history that made the decision for me.

Boating Industry: Volvo Penta introduced the Forward Drive at Miami earlier this year. How has the reaction been from the marketplace?

Huibers: When we launched it in Miami we just had it on a few boats for surfing, but if you remember at that announcement we said our intention was to grow boating, to get more people out on the water, to give the boats versatility.

We’ll be announcing [this month] that several builders will be offering it across their line. It’s so much quieter – up to 50 percent quieter at cruise. … For all those activities off the back of the boat, it’s so much cleaner.

What [the dealers] are saying to me at dealer meetings is that they’ve been surprised by how many customers come to them and say, “When are you getting that, because I want to upgrade my boat.”

The dealers that have seen it, they get it. … People know the technology we have. It’s proven, they trust us for it.

We’re excited about it. What we want to do is grow boating, so if we can get a boat that’s more versatile, that gets more people on the water, that’s the key thing we want to do.

Boating Industry: A theme that seemed to keep coming up as you reviewed Volvo Penta’s past innovations and introduced the new engines is making boating easier.

Huibers: What we are all about is integration. So in the marine business we take a helm to prop approach … focused on making it easier and making it pleasurable.

If you look at the innovations that Penta’s brought out, like the glass cockpit …now we have it all integrated. It offers safer operation, it has built-in redundancy.

It allows people to have confidence on the water, to be more comfortable. I think that’s kept people boating and it’s also attracted people that may not have been boaters before.

Boating Industry: We all know the sterndrive market has been challenged, but how do you guys feel about it? Where do you see it headed?

Huibers: If you look at the sterndrive business when it was so strong in the 2000s it was because the outboard technology hadn’t moved up. Outboards took a technology bump, and gave people a good experience. Now we’re answering that again on the sterndrive side to give people good performance and a competitive package.

So what we see is that the sterndrive market, if you take 24 [foot] and up, that’s actually growing.

Will it be as big as it used to be? I don’t think so and we’re not counting on that. But if you give people something new … new always sells, and I think that’s what’s exciting.

Boating Industry: So speaking of new, let’s pivot back to the new engines we’ve had out on the water today. You’ve already had these at some dealer meetings, the OEMs have been very involved in the development – what feedback have you gotten so far?

Huibers: When we started working with the OEMs, we laid out with them our strategy, the horsepower, the technology. One of the things the OEMs and the dealers were concerned about … was price: “Keep it competitive. You can’t price all that technology so we’re not competitive in the market.”

As we worked through and did the innovation, what they’ve seen is we’ve delivered exactly on what they asked us to do: keep it competitively priced, give them the performance they need with already proven reliability.

Overall, certainly there was some anxiety about the technology, but as they’ve gone through it and understood now what’s behind it and the proven nature of it, they’ve embraced it.

Boating Industry: You've talked a lot about GM as a partner. Can you tell us more about that relationship?

Huibers: GM as a partner has been providing us with proven engines that we’ve been marinizing for years.

What GM has done with this technology bump … they’ve been very open. We’ve enjoy today the best relationship we’ve ever had with General Motors. They’re aligned, they’re motivated. To get that technology, to bring it to the marketplace … sure, we could look at turbos and things like that, but this offers economy of scale, a cost-competitive, proven engine that is going to give consumers the experience they want.

People we had here from the OEMs would ask me, “What happens if GM leaves the marine business?” My answer to that was we should worry if GM stops building cars and trucks, and if they do, we’ll have to find something else. But until that happens, GM’s a great partner.

Ron Huibers interview

Video Walk-Through

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