Special Report

UAW logo2007 UAW
Labor Talks

General Motors Corp.’s Fairfax, KS, assembly plant gets the nod to build an upcoming Buick based on the Epsilon platform beginning in 2009, the auto maker’s proposed contract with the United Auto Workers union reveals.

GM also will spread production of the award-winning platform to additional U.S. assembly plants, according to a document provided to the UAW that details GM’s tentative U.S. production plans as far out as 2013.

The facility’s 1,874 UAW-represented employees already build the Epsilon-based Saturn Aura and are in launch mode on the redesigned Chevrolet Malibu that shares its platform. Those vehicles will continue in production until 2011, the document says.

Fairfax also will receive in 2010 what GM refers to as a large 4-door Chevrolet notchback and an Epsilon-based Saturn product in 2009, presumably the second-generation Aura.

“I’ve seen the Buick. It’s real,” says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, MI. “It’s a knockout.”

GM would not comment on manufacturing issues surrounding the Epsilon-based Buick, but it does confirm the car will serve as the next-generation LaCrosse and debut in 2009 as a ’10 model. GM officials in August revealed plans to produce an Epsilon-based LaCrosse, but timing and sourcing locations were not disclosed.

It will mark the first truly global vehicle for Buick, a spokesman says, leveraging design and engineering input from GM facilities worldwide.

“It is the next step in bringing the Buick brand to international status with one product in two different regions – China and North America,” the spokesman tells Ward’s.

Calls to UAW Local 31 in Fairfax seeking additional details were not returned.

The current LaCrosse uses GM’s W platform, which it shares with the Chevrolet Impala, and is built in Oshawa, ON, Canada. GM said last year it would invest C$740 million ($662 million) at its two Oshawa car plants to accommodate new products, but designated only the ’09 Chevrolet Camaro for output there. Most expect the Impala also to migrate to Camaro’s rear-wheel-drive Zeta platform, although GM has said the potential for sharply higher corporate average fuel economy standards could temper any plans for fullsize RWD cars.

Jim Stanford, an economist for the Canadian Auto Workers union, could not say if GM also was considering building the Epsilon-based Buick at Oshawa.

“We understand GM is developing business cases for other products that could be assigned to the plant,” he says. “The investment wouldn’t exist without additional products to the Camaro.”

The Epsilon platform also will spread to GM’s Hamtramck, MI, plant, which gets a Chevrolet based on the architecture beginning in ’12, according to the UAW document. A GM spokeswoman declined to comment on future product plans for the brand.

“There is a lot of product coming down the pipe at Chevrolet,” she says. “It’s a big division and we like to keep its showroom full.”

GM, however, already is tapping its facility in Orion Twp., MI, for additional production of the ’08 Malibu. GM executives confirm in an Oct. 2 conference call with financial analysts and the media that Malibu production in Orion, which currently builds only the Pontiac G6, will begin by year’s end.

Cole says the product commitment shows Epsilon will serve as the foundation for GM’s global midsize cars for some time to come.

“Epsilon is a hardcore, central, midsize car platform. It will be a common platform everywhere in the world,” Cole says of the architecture, which helped the ’07 Aura to North American Car of the Year honors at the Detroit auto show earlier this year.

It also demonstrates GM’s efforts to enhance its manufacturing flexibility are now gaining traction, Cole says.

“They can mix and match in ways they never could in the past,” Cole tells Ward’s. “Every new platform that emerges in the future will be ‘manufacturable’ in many different settings.”

In many ways, the tentative contract finally makes that possible. With elements such as a 2-tier wage structure and a Voluntary Employees’ Benefit Assn. that would relieve GM of its health-care obligations to retirees and employees for the next 80 years, the auto maker moves to a U.S. wage structure more competitive with key rival Toyota Motor Corp.

“If GM had Toyota’s health-care costs, it’s equal to 5 new products every year,” Cole says.

Add in virtual prototyping on top of flexible manufacturing and low-cost investment, Cole adds, “and all of a sudden you begin to enable an entirely different picture in terms of new vehicles. You can really accelerate the flow of new vehicles.”

jamend@wardsauto.com