Already a year ahead in its drive to build 720,000 cars in Ohio and Ontario, Honda North America Inc. is spending $200 million to raise its 1998 target for engine production from 750,000 to 900,000 a year at its Anna, OH, engine plant.

Meanwhile, the company will transfer nearly all of its automatic transmission production to supplier Bellemar Parts Industries, which will add a new $37 million assembly line at its Russells Point, OH, plant, just down the road from Honda assembly plants in Marysville and East Liberty.

"By accelerating plans for our North American operations, Honda will be more competitive in offering products that meet the needs of markets throughout the Americas," says Koichi Amemiya, president of Honda North America.

The added engine and transmission production will supply an Accord assembly plant in El Salto, Mexico, and a new Civic plant under construction in Brazil.

Two years ago, Honda unveiled plans to expand its North American car-building capacity to 720,000 by the end of this year, but it reached that goal by the end of 1995. In 1998, production will begin in Alliston, Ont., on a new front-wheel-drive minivan, pulling capacity in the U.S. and Canada up to 840,000 vehicles annually.

The Anna engine expansion will include the new 3L V-6 engine being introduced this fall in the Acura CL. and an ultra-low emission vehicle (ULEV) to debut in the 1998 model year for sale in California.

Honda spokesman Takanori Sonoda says the engine expansion won't create any new jobs at the Anna plant, but the additional transmission production will require increased purchases from a group of 10 suppliers who will be hiring up to 1,200 workers in Ohio and Michigan. Currently, Honda employs about 20,000 people in the U.S. and Canada.