RAYONG province, Thailand - The domestic market here is almost incidental to the new $640 million plant General Motors Corp. officially opened May 8. The name of the GM game in Thailand is, in a word, "exports."

During ramp up this year, 85% of the 8,000-plus 1.8L Zafira multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs) rolling out of final assembly will be shipped overseas, mostly to Europe, where the popular model was introduced in April 1999. Next year, when full Zafira production gets under way at an annual rate of 40,000 units, as many as nine out of 10 vehicles will be exported.

This model did not figure in the original GM project to establish a production base in Southeast Asia, with booming Thailand getting the nod over the Philippines. But the plan announced in May 1996 to make Opel sedans for the region was barely a year old when Thailand plunged the neighborhood into economic collapse.

"We never stopped, but we slowed down; reassessed the environment and ultimately decided on the Zafira as our first product and Europe as our main export destination," says William Botwick, president of GM-Thailand. "The economic crisis delayed our plant opening, but the timing couldn't be more ideal."

By the time the first Zafira was driven off the line last month by GM President G. Richard Wagoner Jr., more than 275,000 units had been ordered in Europe, where demand was overwhelming supply, and interest in the Zafira had been aroused here.

Although Thailand primarily is a pickup truck market, second-largest in the world after the U.S., cars are becoming more popular, and GM planners see the Zafira, which comes in 39 configurations and seats up to seven, as a winner.

"I believe the Zafira will be a fantastic success in Thailand," Mr. Botwick says, noting more than 450 customers put down deposits even before advertising began in June. "I don't know how high the numbers will go, since a market segment for the Zafira doesn't exist, but I won't be satisfied with annual domestic sales of 6,000."

With any luck, Zafira will ride the wave of Thailand's recovering economy. Domestic car sales are projected to rise to 260,000 this year from a low of 144,000 in 1998, although still far below the nearly 600,000 units sold in the pre-crisis mid-1990s. By the end of this year, 27 Thai Zafira dealerships will be in operation nationwide, gradually increasing to 100.

But the emphasis these days is on getting production up to speed and fulfilling export needs on four continents. Thai-made Zafiras will carry Chevrolet, Holden, Opel and Vauxhall badges, but there reportedly are no plans to sell the compact minivan in the U.S.

Pilot operations in Rayong, one of the two plants in the world producing Zafiras, began late last year, and output with one shift is expected to reach 10 units an hour by November. A second shift is due in 2001.

Engines and drivetrains are coming in from Adam Opel AG in Europe. GM does not intend to make them in Thailand. But production already is 38% localized, and local content will be increased "as it makes sense," Mr. Botwick says, even though Thailand eliminated such requirements in January.

GM Thailand currently sources from 41 local suppliers, including eight that moved in specifically to support Zafira production. Since nearly all are within two hours of the plant, the aim is to achieve just-in-time delivery as quickly as possible. "One of the primary reasons GM had for building here was Thailand's well-developed industry with suppliers in place," says Mr. Botwick, adding that labor costs ranging from $150 to $200 per month for production team members are higher than Indonesia but lower than Taiwan.

Yet the Thai project still is running far below the original targets of GM planners, with output next year scheduled at less than a third of planned capacity. Partly due to the Asian economic crisis, GM sold less than 500,000 units in the Asia/Pacific region last year, giving it a paltry 4% market share.

GM vehicles in Asia/Pacific sold on the same level as in South America but far below the more than 2 million sold annually in Europe and 5.5 million in North America.

GM's 190-acre (77-ha) greenfield plant located in an industrial park 73 miles (117 km) south of Bangkok initially was budgeted at $750 million and designed to produce 130,000 units a year. This first cousin of GM facilities in Eisenach, Germany; Rosario, Argentina; Gliwice, Poland; and Shanghai, China, incorporates modular design. With a paint shop essentially in place, there's ample room for that output and more, if and when the need arises.

Other vehicles eventually may be added to the lineup, probably starting with a small sedan and following up with another lifestyle model of some kind, but there's no timetable for expanding production - or at least none that GM executives are willing to talk about.

What is known is that given GM's expanding presence in Asia, few if any doubt the need for the handsome new plant in Thailand. Recognizing that time is money, however, the payoff obviously will be delayed.