Thanks to hot products and the booming U.S. economy, major foreign-owned automakers are gearing up for another wave of expansion in the U.S. and Canada. From the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord to the Mercedes-Benz M-class and BMW Z3, just about everything the major Japanese and German transplants are building in the U.S. seems to be turning to gold.

The Toyota Camry, built in Georgetown, KY, and Honda's new Accord, built in Marysville, OH, are fighting it out to be the best-selling car in America for 1997. Ford, which traditionally has held the No.1 spot with the Taurus, is refusing to bolster its position with huge incentives or money-losing fleet sales, and likely will allow Taurus to finish third this year.

Meanwhile, well-heeled customers are mobbing Mercedes-Benz and BMW dealerships to get on waiting lists to buy Mercedes M-Class sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) built in Vance, AL, and BMW Z3 roadsters built in Spartanburg, SC.

With big expansions already under way and these home-run products straining current capacity, it's hard to ignore rumors that even more plants are in the works.

Toyota reportedly is planning a fifth assembly plant in the U.S. or Canada and is negotiating to buy out General Motors Corp.'s share of New United Motor Mfg. Inc., their jointly owned factory in Fremont, CA. And rumors that Honda is scouting sites for a fourth assembly plant in North America persist, despite the automaker's emphatic denials.

Athough a Honda North America Inc. spokesman rules out a fourth Honda plant, he says the company continues to increase the capability and flexibility of existing plants, currently producing at about 106% of straight-time capacity.

Honda already has been pursuing major expansion plans during the past several years, including a 50% increase in U.S. engine production to 900,000 units.

Honda also intends to produce nearly all of the automatic transmissions it uses for vehicles made in North America (650,000 units). Two years ago it announced plans to expand production in Canada for a new minivan, which will bring total production capacity to 840,000 units in the U.S. and Canada

If the Toyota plans pan out - including doubling capacity at its new Indiana truck plant from 100,000 to 200,000 vehicles a year and taking 100,000 units of GM production at NUMMI - the automaker could be capable of annually producing 1.5 million cars and trucks in North America by early in the next decade - about double last year's production.

Expansions beyond those already announced also are rumored at Mercedes' and BMW's relatively small U.S. plants. They're gearing up to supply world markets with a growing number of variants of current products, but their huge success now is leading to speculation that several significant new products will be added at both sites.

The latest reports from Europe say Mercedes has committed to the production of a medium-size minivan in Alabama based on its C-class platform. But the German automaker also has been rumored at various times to be considering building in Alabama a mini SUV based on its small A-class sedan and an all-wheel-drive SUV/minivan hybrid based on its next generation E-class. A spokeswoman for Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. won't comment except to say there is plenty of room at the site for expansion.

Meanwhile, production of M-class SUVs is humming along, silencing skeptics who insisted the plant's unique manufacturing approach - combining methods and technologies from the U.S., Germany and Japan - would be a disaster. A second shift was added on schedule in September. Regular production, which began in January, is about 180 units per day and should hit capacity at 270 units per day by Spring 1998.

Production of V-8 versions, and European-spec models with right-hand drive, 4-cyl. gasoline and 5-cyl. diesel engines is expected to begin in late summer. The forecast for full calendar year production has been boosted from 65,000 to 70,000 units, with 40,000 slated for sale in the U.S.

Currently BMW Manufacturing Corp. is operating on two shifts and producing about 255 Z3s per day. Two years ago it announced a $200 million plant expansion that will allow capacity to grow from 300 units per day to 400 by late 1999, but that may not be the end of it. Suppliers say the plant will be building a car/SUV hybrid based on BMW's 5-Series in the not-too-distant future as well.

The first 318i sedan rolled off the line at Spartanburg in September 1994. The first Z3 roadster - manufactured exclusively in South Carolina for worldwide distribution - moved into production a year later. Spartanburg now produces eight variations of the roadster, based on engine size, transmission and driver position, and exports them to more than 100 countries.

During the second half of 1998, the super high-performance M coupe and Z3 coupe 2.8 will be produced for global sales. The second of the "M twins" will be a two-seat hard-top with distinctive styling. Output for 1997 will hit 63,000, a 25% increase over the 50,000 built in 1996.

Of course, not everyone is doing as well as Toyota, Honda, and the Germans.

CAMI Automotive Inc., a joint venture 50%-owned by GM of Canada Limited and 50%-owned by Suzuki Motor Co. of Japan based in Ingersoll, Ont., continues to suffer. In November it announced a major production cut that would include laying off one shift, or 42% of its 1,900 employees, in '98.

CAMI builds GM's and Suzuki's tiny Chevrolet Metro and Suzuki Swift and the slow-selling Chevy Tracker and Suzuki Sidekick, unrefined small SUVs that have never been able to win a large following and now are being hammered by modern "ute-ettes" such as the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CRV.

AutoAlliance in Flat Rock, MI, also has been doing poorly because of weak sales of its products. Right now the plant is building only the Mazda 626. The Ford Probe and Mazda MX-6 were killed off last summer. Production is forecast to be an anemic 99,000 units for '97, down by 23% from last year.

But AutoAlliance will start production of another product - the new Mercury Cougar - in early 1998. The car, featuring Ford's "New Edge" styling, could be a strong seller. It will be exported to Europe, too, adding still more volume.

AutoAlliance's unionized workers also have agreed to work under the same UAW contract as the rest of Ford's hourly workers, instead of a separately negotiated contract, and that reportedly has paved the way for the introduction of a third vehicle at Flat Rock, which will further boost production volumes.

While the nine U.S. and four Canadian transplant operations (including Volvo's small kit-building facility in Halifax, Nova Scotia) are all very different, almost all have a growing interest in light trucks. Honda plans to build an all-new minivan in Canada in 1998, boosting production in Alliston, Ont., by 120,000 units; Toyota plans to build 100,000 pickups - and possibly its 4Runner SUV - in Princeton, IN, and the Sienna, a Camry-based minivan already is rolling down the line in Georgetown - the first time ever in North America that workers are building a minivan on the same line as a passenger car.

Toyota's T100 pickup truck plant in Indiana is scheduled to begin production in 1998, and its new Charleston, WV, engine plant will begin output of 4-cyl. engines for Corolla beginning in 1999.

Nissan Motor Mfg. Corp., which builds Nissan Altima sedans, compact pickup trucks, Sentra subcompacts and 200SX sport coupes in Smyrna, TN, is shifting 150,000 units of Sentra subcompact car production to Mexico to make room at its giant factory for a compact SUV smaller than the current Nissan Pathfinder model. NMMC President Jerry L. Benefield says the changeover to accommodate the new Nissan Altima took a bite out of production earlier this year, and an unprecedented second changeover for the SUV promises more lost production.

Here's the rundown on the other key transplants:

Mitsubishi Motors America Inc. in Normal, IL, which began as Diamond-Star Motors Corp., a 50/50 joint venture with Chrysler Corp. but has been wholly-owned by Mitsubishi Motor Corp. since 1991, will continue its partnership with Chrysler supplying the Sebring coupe and Avenger. Chrysler and Mitsubishi now are discussing the next generation vehicles to replace Avenger and Sebring, a Mitsubishi spokesman says.

The third vehicle Mitsubishi makes for Chrysler, the Eagle Talon, will be discontinued in September. In 1996, Talon sales plummeted 33% from a year earlier to 13,842 units. So far this year, Talon sales are down 28%.

Despite the demise of Talon, the vehicle will live on as the Mitsubishi Eclipse and will continue to be made in Normal. In addition, the plant will continue producing the Mitsubishi Gallant and the Eclipse Spider.

Output should be about 190,000 units this year, up perhaps 1% or 2% from last year. Capacity is 240,000 units a year. About 60% of this year's total (110,000 units) are Mitsubishi products.

Projected output for Lafayette, IN-based Subaru-Izuzu Automotive (SIA), which makes the Legacy sedan, wagon and Legacy Outback, Isuzu Rodeo SUV and the Rodeo-based Honda Passport, is down about 5% for the year. Subaru output will be up by about 3% to 102,000, while Isuzu output will hit 83,000 for Rodeo and Passport, off more than 10%.