SHANGHAI – After nearly a month of pilot production, General Motors Corp.’s joint venture plant here with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. will start regular production Nov. 17 of the 3.4L V-6 engine that will power the ’05 Chevy Equinox cross/utility vehicle.

CAMI closer to final production of Equinox CUV.

Equinox, which is based on GM’s Theta architecture, will be built in Ingersoll, Ont., Canada, by CAMI Automotive Inc. – a joint venture between GM and equity partner Suzuki Motor Corp.

CAMI recently wrapped production of nine non-salable Equinoxes and will assemble over the next three months more than 350 units that will be used for further testing before regular production begins Feb. 23, Ward’s learns. A CAMI spokeswoman confirms salable production is under way.

The engine and CUV are significant milestones for GM. The 3.4L easily is the largest automotive component exported from China to the U.S. And early indications are that the Equinox will give GM’s Chevrolet nameplate and CAMI their first legitimate entry into the popular “cute-ute” segment, after years of failing with the Chevy Tracker.

Underutilized for years building the Tracker/Suzuki Vitara, CAMI is expected to make at least 100,000 Equinoxes annually. Tracker and Vitara output eventually will be halted. But the CAMI spokeswoman declines to specify when.

CAMI’s capacity is roughly 190,000 units annually and could go higher. So there is capacity available to produce vehicles in addition to Equinox. And more could be on the way.

A source tells Ward’s CAMI officials recently visited Japan to negotiate with Suzuki about CAMI building an extended version of the Equinox, featuring three rows of seats, for Suzuki. “We have nothing we can say at this point,” a CAMI spokeswoman says regarding future product announcements.

When Suzuki outlined its strategy in August to hit 200,000 sales annually in the U.S. by 2007, the auto maker revealed plans to bring a new midsize utility vehicle to the market by the ’06 model year and did not rule out getting a version of the Equinox.

And GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner has hinted CAMI will be assigned production of additional vehicle programs. “We’ll announce that later on,” Wagoner said in Japan during a press conference prior to the recent Tokyo Motor Show.

"There might be (more product announcements regarding CAMI),” he reveals. “I do think that we’re going to have better utilization of CAMI with the Equinox, but I wouldn’t confine it to one product only. If it makes sense to add others, we will. But we haven’t announced any right now.”

Besides Suzuki, there are other possibilities for the Theta platform and CAMI.

GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Co. (GMDAT), the South Korean auto maker comprised of certain assets purchased by GM, Suzuki and Shanghai Auto from the former bankrupt Daewoo Motor Co. Ltd., is developing a front-wheel-drive compact utility vehicle for its domestic lineup.

During a recent tour of GMDAT operations, company officials declined to confirm speculation that the company’s utility is a re-engineered version of GM’s Theta platform, which also is used for the Saturn Vue.

GMDAT plans to build the utility vehicle in South Korea, and it’s possible the vehicle will wear the Pontiac nameplate in North America. But that is far from certain. If approved, the likely production locations for the Theta-based Pontiac would be CAMI or South Korea.

Notably, Ward’s is told CAMI will begin re-tooling the area of the plant used to build the Tracker and Vitara as early as February. Equinox is being built in the area of the plant formerly occupied by the Chevy Metro and Suzuki Swift subcompacts.