Pontiac has decided to jump on the small sport/utility vehicle (SUV) circuit as early as 2001 with its Aztek concept that it teased viewers with at the Detroit auto show last January.

The sport wagon/SUV has been in General Motors Corp.'s Validation Center in Pontiac, MI, for at least two months. Using the Aztek's body-in-white design, workers have been validating body shop equipment that will be used to produce the crossover vehicle for Pontiac.

Sources say the Aztek should be on sale to consumers within two years. The likely donor platform is GM's front-wheel-drive minivan platform (Pontiac Montana, Chevrolet Venture, Olds Silhouette). GM's Buick Div. is expected to get a similar version, called Rendezvous, which will debut shortly after the Aztek.

The Aztek is expected to use the same 200-hp 3.4L, V-6, engine and 4-speed automatic currently used in GM's minivans. The Rendezvous reportedly will be all-wheel drive.

Exactly where the vehicles will be built is still unclear. GM has several plants in the U.S. and Canada, including its Baltimore and Ste. Therese, Que., facilities that have no product allocated beyond early next decade. GM's Doraville, GA, plant that builds its minivans also has been mentioned.

Industry sources, however, indicate GM's Ramos Arizpe, Mexico, plant is a likely site for a new series of car-SUV models, including the Aztek. O

Lean manufacturing is hardly a new concept in automotive, but suppliers and automakers alike often take vastly divergent routes on their way to trimming waste from their operations.

The Society of Automotive Engineers offers a solution: a standard approach to lean manufacturing carefully crafted from the best practices employed by about a dozen companies with a proven record in lean operations, some of them outside automotive.

Participants include Dana Corp., Donnelly Corp., Freudenberg-NOK General Partnership, Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Hewlett-Packard Co., Johnson Controls Inc. and the Timken Co.

SAE began the best practices survey last year and visited the companies' manufacturing sites to identify, measure and document their lean operations. The analysis incorporated labor relations, communication with suppliers and customers and product/process flow.

When the analysis is complete later this year, SAE plans to write a manual to help companies implement the standard, to be named J4000. The final report is likely to be released at SAE's Southern Automotive Manufacturing Conference in Birmingham, AL, in September. O

Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. are shuffling their factory cards. Ford is considering ending production of the Mercury Cougar at AutoAlliance International Inc. (AAI) in 2003 to make way for another Ford coupe at the Flat Rock, MI, assembly plant.

Bruce Bowman, AAI president and chief executive, says the Cougar could be replaced by another sporty coupe at the plant. Mazda 626 production also would cease in 2005 or 2006 to make way for another 4-door sedan under the proposed plan, he says.

The shifting of Cougar out of Flat Rock is just the latest proposal for AAI. Earlier, Ford had been planning to add output of two new sedans there, but Mr. Bowman says that scenario has been ruled out. AAI built its 2 millionth vehicle in June

GM, meanwhile, will spend $14 million to overhaul its Lansing, MI, Genasys Craft Centre to prepare the assembly plant for Cadillac Eldorado production beginning next year. Eldorado currently is built alongside other Cadillacs at GM's Hamtramck, MI, factory.

The Craft Center currently makes the low-volume EV1 electric vehicle and convertible tops for the Chevrolet Cavalier/Pontiac Sunfire made at GM's nearby Lansing assembly plant.

The Eldorado's arrival likely means the EV1 will be moved out, possibly to another GM facility near the Craft Centre, says a spokesman for GM's Advanced Technology Vehicles (ATV).

Because GM has not settled on a site for the EV1, a scenario that threatens the life of any vehicle, company insiders say the battery-powered car's future could be in doubt. The ATV spokesman only would say GM will analyze the market and product and "make a determination where to go from there. "We continue to be very committed to ATVs."