North American Int’l Auto ShowDETROIT – The Chevrolet SSR roadster pickup was a disappointment for General Motors Corp., and the plant that assembled it, the Lansing, MI, Craft Centre, is closing this year.

The auto maker remains interested in unique niche vehicle projects, but it appears doubtful GM will give the go-ahead for such a program in the near term, says Gary Cowger, group vice president-Global Manufacturing and Labor Relations.

“I think right now it’s probably not going to be something we will do in the near future in the U.S.,” Cowger tells journalists here at this week’s North American International Auto Show.

Gary Cowger holds scale model of Chevy SSR roadster pickup when it was still concept.

Having announced in November plans to close or scale back production at 11 plants and eliminate 30,000 jobs, GM has more pressing matters than to focus on a niche vehicle that creates buzz among consumers but ultimately generates limited sales, Cowger seems to suggest.

GM prefers niche vehicles that are derived from a fresh, existing platform that already has undergone a battery of test procedures and validation, Cowger says. The chassis for the SSR, for instance, was based on the underpinnings of the midsize TrailBlazer SUV.

“You can probably drive a lot more derivatives, and therefore your entire volume goes up,” Cowger says. “So you can have 10 niche vehicles, theoretically, each getting 20,000 units. There’s a 200,000-unit plant. You can do that quite well.”

Still, niche vehicles must be studied “program by program,” he says. “The continual challenge for manufacturing is, how do you take these niche vehicles and drive the cost down so you can start to make money in the 10,000 to 20,000-unit range? There are a lot of different ways to do it as we get more flexible platforms and architectures.”

GM has said it could produce about 20,000 Pontiac Solstice roadsters annually at its plant in Wilmington, DE, and announced in November it would add a third shift of production. The plant also will build the Saturn Sky and a new Opel roadster in 2006.

Solstice production began in August and closed the year with a healthy 5,445 deliveries, according to Ward’s data.

Whether the auto maker’s next niche vehicle comes from a GM assembly plant or from a supplier facility remains open for discussion.

Suppliers such as American Specialty Cars Inc. and Magna Steyr AG & Co. KG have been leading separate campaigns in recent years to open a plant in North America devoted to contract assembly of niche vehicles for auto makers that may not want to invest in new capacity for low-volume programs.

ASC President and CEO Paul Wilbur tells Ward’s this week at the auto show the company will announce this year whether it will build or purchase a plant for assembling low-volume niche vehicles. (See related story: ASC Deciding on Niche Plant)

Likewise, Magna Steyr has been shopping for North American or Asian locations to build a highly flexible plant capable of producing 160,000 vehicles annually for up to four different auto makers. The plant could run on three shifts and would employ one body shop and one paint shop.

In Graz, Magna Steyr currently assembles Saab 9-3 convertibles for GM. (See related story: Graz Approaches Global Vision)

"I think you will continue to see us looking at what is the most effective way to try to do niche vehicles,” Cowger says.

He declines, however, to shed any light on whether the Camaro concept, which generated lots of excitement at this week’s show, will go into production, either at a GM facility or one operated by a supplier. (See related story: GM to Decide Quickly on Camaro Production )

The fate of GM’s Lansing Craft Centre remains questionable. Lansing officials are lobbying for ASC to take over the plant – and to preserve jobs in the community – but such an investment would be expensive and enormously risky for ASC.

Wilbur is relatively downbeat on the prospects of ASC purchasing the Craft Centre.

If GM is in talks with customers to purchase the Craft Centre, Cowger is not letting on. “If anyone has interest in it, we are certainly talking to them,” he says.

GM sold 8,107 Chevy SSRs in 2005, down 16% from 9,648 deliveries in 2004, according to Ward’s data. When the vehicle began production in 2003, GM said it expected to build 15,000 annually.

tmurphy@primediabusiness.com