The CAMI Automotive Inc. assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ont., was riding high in 1995, when after six years in business the plant reached its peak production of 183,000 units, most of them Geo Metro subcompacts and Tracker small sport/utility vehicles.

But as vehicle buyers decided that bigger is better, sales plummeted for Metro, Tracker and their Suzuki counterparts: Swift and Sidekick. The plant is a 50/50 joint venture between General Motors Corp. and Suzuki Motor Corp.

Production was down by a third in 1996, and continued falling in 1997 when poor sales forced several production shutdowns.

In 1998, the 2,400-employee plant screeched to a halt. Between January and June, the plant was shut down a total of eight weeks. Car production was cut back to one shift in June.

The plant then went on "extended shutdown" from July 2 until the end of September. By the end of October, it was on pace to produce fewer than 50,000 vehicles.

During the extended shutdown workers retooled for new versions of Tracker and Sidekick, which Suzuki renamed Vitara to portray a more macho image.

The vehicles are critical to the plant's recovery, although they arrive at a time when the "cute-ute" segment is saturated with offerings from Honda, Toyota and Subaru. Tracker and Vitara, however, will have a pricing advantage.

The outlook for the facility also began looking up in October when GM named CAMI as its lead North American assembly plant for its high-volume Delta small-car platform.

This past summer, GM increased its ownership of Suzuki from 3% to 10%, partly because it wants Suzuki to help fill GM's small car needs.

Despite the arrival of Delta and new models at CAMI, the outlook remains bleak for Metro. As of October, sales for Metro were down 57% from 1997. Chevrolet sold 55,600 Metros in 1997, off from 88,700 the year before. - Tom Murphy