It's sad to say, but the closely watched Harbour Report on automotive manufacturing efficiency has become a contest where the laggards are more interesting to watch than the leaders.

Nissan Motor Mfg. Corp. U.S.A., Honda of American Mfg. Inc. and Toyota Motor Mfg. Corp., as usual, are closely bunched as the first, second and third most efficient producers overall in North America. The big news is that for the first time since Ronald Harbour began issuing his report in 1980 General Motors Corp. moved past Ford Motor Co. and took over the fourth-place ranking — still separated, however, by a mile from the leaders.

GM's new status marks four years of steady improvement, while Ford's plant productivity — traditionally the best of the Big Three — has declined over the same period. Ford was the only major North American manufacturer to exhibit such a protracted slide.

Analysts point out that GM does not have too much to gloat about, because its North American assembly, stamping and powertrain plants still trail Nissan's benchmark operations on an aggregate basis by 10 man-hours per vehicle.

Despite the overall disparity, there does appear to be some light at the end of the tunnel for Detroit auto makers. GM is showing that on a one-on-one basis, at least, it can compete — and beat — the best. GM's Oshawa, Ont., Canada, facility is ranked as the single most efficient auto assembly plant in North America — the first time a GM plant has led the rankings and one of the few times a Detroit-based auto maker has been on top.

Three GM car plants and three truck plants also led their segments in productivity. GM also had the most productive rear-wheel-drive transmission and V-8 engine plants.

GM's steady improvements didn't surprise long-time observers of the Harbour Report, but Ford's continued slide in productivity did. Ron Harbour, president of Harbour and Associates Inc., says that in 1997 Ford's manufacturing operations appeared to be in good shape, and there was little to suggest to top executives at the time that major changes were needed. It appears now that Ford started taking its eye off the productivity ball just as GM was launching unprecedented initiatives to improve its own efficiency.

On another note, Harbour points out that high quality and high productivity are not mutually exclusive. Instead, he says they complement each other. Vehicle designs that are well-conceived are easier to manufacture, and that leads to high quality. That means GM's simultaneous rise in both productivity rankings such as Harbour's and quality rankings such as those produced by J.D. Power & Associates is no coincidence.

Meanwhile DaimlerChrysler Corp.'s operations remain the least efficient of the major North American producers, but it did cut its hours per vehicle from 48.5 in 1997 to 44.28 at the end of 2001. That was no easy task, especially considering it was forced to make many cutbacks in production and line speeds last year.

Other highlights:

  • Mitsubishi Motor Mfg. Corp., with 21.82 hours per vehicle, had the biggest improvement in assembly productivity. The company's 8.6% improvement in 2001 followed an even-better 21.6% improvement in 2000.

  • In stamping operations, Toyota again led in most measurement categories. GM and DC showed improvement in several key labor or equipment measures. Stamping also was one of the few areas where Ford showed improvement.

  • In powertrain, Honda and Toyota finished 1-2 in engine productivity rankings. Toyota led the 4-cyl. segment with 2.71 hours per engine (HPE); Honda was first in 6-cyl. productivity with 3.47 HPE and GM led V-8 output with 4.55 HPE. DC was the most improved in engine productivity, and moved past Ford in overall HPE rankings.

  • In transmissions, GM narrowly beat DC, which passed Ford for the No.2 spot in the transmission productivity rankings. However, DC was ranked first in front-drive transmission productivity, while GM led in the rear-drive category.