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BY MARK PHELAN
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
In a bold and ambitious strategy to boost sales, General Motors Corp. will introduce an unprecedented number of new car and truck families beginning in late 2005 and 2006, the Free Press has learned.
The vehicles will fill assembly plants on at least two continents and determine GM's fortunes for a decade as the company leaps into several new parts of the car market and replaces its most important pickups and SUVs.
GM insiders and other industry sources say the automaker will introduce four new vehicle architectures over the next two years.
A fifth architecture already in production will form the basis of several new vehicles to be produced around the world. An architecture -- or platform -- is a set of components and structures used to produce a wide variety of cars or trucks. The Buick Rendezvous and Pontiac Aztek SUVs, for example, are examples of two vehicles built from the same architecture.
The four new architectures are code named Lambda, GMT 900, Zeta and Kappa. The existing architecture is called Theta.
GM will spend billions of dollars to develop and build the vehicles in more than a dozen assembly plants around the world, including at least one new plant, now under construction near Lansing.
The upcoming vehicles range from completely new small sporty cars to replacements for GM's full-size pickups and SUVs, including powerhouse names like the Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra and Cadillac Escalade.
Some of the new vehicles will fill gaps in GM's lineup, such as a midsize SUV for Saturn and large performance-oriented rear-wheel-drive sedans for Buick and Pontiac. Various models from the programs will debut over several years beginning in 2005.
Several of the new vehicles are vital to GM's plan to invigorate slower-selling brands like Buick, Saturn and Saab. GM also expects the programs to provide hot-selling models for brands like Chevrolet, Pontiac and Australia-based Holden.
Once all the vehicles reach production, they could account for 2.4 million sales a year, by a conservative estimate.
The crucial program
GMT 900 is the single program most vital to GM's success. It will lead to replacements for the company's full-size pickups and SUVs, vehicles that accounted for more than 1.6 million sales in 2003. GM may change the program's name before the trucks begin rolling off assembly lines from Canada to Mexico.
Whatever it's called, though, GMT 900's scope boggles the mind, potentially accounting for annual sales worth more than the gross national product of many countries and comprising vehicles ranging from workhorse Chevy Silverado pickups to Shaquille O'Neal's customized Cadillac Escalade.
"It's GM's most important North American platform, bar none," said Michael Robinet, vice president of forecast services for consultant CSM Worldwide in Northville.
GMT 900 will face a tough competitive landscape that includes the Ford F-150, which set a new standard for pickups, the Nissan Titan and Toyota's first truly full-size pickup, a larger version of the Tundra in a new plant in San Antonio in 2006.
"It's a very competitive battleground," Robinet said. "GM knows that, and I'm confident they will meet the challenge."
The most contentious and mysterious of the new architectures is called Lambda, and it will fill GM's new assembly plant in Delta Township.
Lambda is still so sensitive within GM that executives refuse to acknowledge the program even exists.
Lambda began its life as a family of front- and all-wheel-drive full-size trucks and SUVs that would be built on a car-like structure to combine some of a truck's usefulness with the smoother ride of a sedan. The Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander are examples of such car-based SUVs.
That vision of Lambda sparked fierce internal debates at GM, because some executives feared it would create competition for the full-size pickups and SUVs that are GM's most successful vehicles.
Lambda will now form the genesis for a family of midsize vehicles, primarily SUVs. The first to go on sale will be a Saturn model in late 2006.
Lambda will also create the replacement for Buick's popular Rendezvous SUV, and potentially a lower-slung Saab model to complement the 9-7X SUV Saab unveiled at the New York auto show.
The original plan for Lambda included pickups and minivans, but both of those ideas are currently on hold, sources say.
Honda will introduce a car-based midsize pickup later this year, and GM may study its sales before deciding to build a Lambda pickup, Robinet said.
Lambda was also developed to spawn a family of minivans, but the extensive reworking of GM's existing minivans this fall may obviate the need for those vehicles, said Jim Hall, vice president for industry analysis in the Southfield office of consultant AutoPacific.
The Theta architecture, which has already produced the Saturn Vue and Chevrolet Equinox, will spawn a range of other small SUVs.
Pontiac will also get a Theta SUV. It will be called the Torrent and will replace the slow-selling Aztek, sources familiar with the program said.
Suzuki, a GM Japanese affiliate, also has a Theta SUV in the works, although, like most of the upcoming cars and trucks, it has not yet won final official approval. The Suzuki and Pontiac Theta SUVs will probably be produced in Cambridge, Ontario, alongside the Equinox. Saturn builds the Vue in Spring Hill, Tenn.
"An SUV that size is very attractive in many markets around the world," said Mark Hogan, GM group vice president for advanced vehicle development.
"Theta was truly one of the first" GM "architectures engineered for global use," Robinet said. "South Korea and other Asian markets are probably a good bet for Theta production."
Theta is the only one of the architectures already in production.
The Kappa architecture for small sporty cars goes into production in 2005 at GM's Wilmington, Del., assembly plant.
The Pontiac Solstice roadster will be the first Kappa vehicle to go on sale that fall, followed by a convertible from Saturn in 2006. The sporty little Saturn will set the tone for the brand's move to compete with brands like Volkswagen and Honda by offering performance, rich interiors and European-influenced styling, GM sources say.
GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz says GM can make money even if it sells as few as 20,000 to 30,000 units of each Kappa model annually.
GM has not officially confirmed any other Kappa models, but Robinet expects the automaker to build up to 150,000 of the small rear-wheel-drive cars annually. Wilmington may be the only plant building Kappa cars, although Hogan said other plants could produce them.
Saab currently appears to be the favorite among GM brands to get a third Kappa vehicle. It will probably be a high-performance, all-wheel-drive two-door wagon similar to the 9X concept car the brand has taken to various auto shows.
GM's European Opel and Vauxhall brands would like to have a little Kappa roadster to replace their current sports cars, but that's more of a long shot, according to several sources.
"There's great enthusiasm globally for Kappa within GM," Hogan said. "It will cover a number of global brands."
Plan for Down Under
The Zeta architecture will also produce vehicles for many brands around the world.
The large rear- and all-wheel-drive sedans will form the heart of GM's Australian lineup, and much of the basic engineering work on Zeta is being done there, according to sources.
In addition to GM's Holden brand in Australia, Zeta will lead to new models key to Buick's reinvigoration. The Buick Velite convertible concept car unveiled at the recent New York auto show used the architecture, and the replacement for the Buick LeSabre and Park Avenue will, too.
"Zeta will probably be a key vehicle for Buick," Robinet said.
The next-generation Pontiac Bonneville is also likely to move from its current front-wheel-drive platform to Zeta.
Zeta will also form the basis for the next Pontiac GTO performance coupe, and could produce the next Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
GM's European Opel brand would also like to get a top-of-the-line sedan from Zeta. Opel was the first brand to show a Zeta concept when it unveiled its Insignia concept car at the Frankfurt auto show last September.
Zeta cars will certainly be built in Australia, and in at least one North American assembly plant. One of GM's highly efficient plants in Oshawa, Ontario, was under consideration, but Zeta sales volume may not be high enough to fill it. GM is now eyeing other plants in North America and Mexico, sources say. Zeta production will probably begin in late 2006.
Difficult and perilous
GM is on a record pace for new car and truck introductions this year, but that challenge pales compared with the flood of vehicles in the offing.
"It behooves us to do 20 to 30 new or heavily changed vehicles in any given year," Hogan said.
AutoPacific's Hall said: "There's never a guarantee any product will succeed, but these look like good bets."
Beginning production of a new vehicle is the most difficult and perilous part of the business for an automaker. It's the part of the process when the most things can go wrong, and even a minor problem can saddle a vehicle with an image of poor quality that hampers sales for years.
Two years of relatively smooth new-model launches, including the redesigned Chevy Malibu, have helped GM prepare for the upcoming onslaught, Robinet said.
"2004 is a big launch year for GM, but 2005 and 2006 are really major," Robinet said. "I have full faith that GM is going to be able to launch these vehicles successfully. I'm not concerned in the least."
The die is cast, and the success of these cars and trucks will determine GM's fate for a decade, and the job security of thousands of workers around the world until many of them retire.