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GM is hoping to Cruze in a profitable direction

LORDSTOWN, Ohio — As General Motors Corp. undergoes its transformation from big and slow to lean and fast in a New York bankruptcy court, a similar metamorphosis is under way inside a mammoth eastern Ohio factory that will make what arguably is GM’s most important vehicle.

The 5 million square-foot Lordstown complex about 50 miles southeast of Cleveland will start making the Chevrolet Cruze compact car early next year, and workers assigned to the factory’s $351 million retooling are well aware that they have no margin for error.

“We’ve got to get this right,” says Bob Vizzuso, a toolmaker who last week was testing machines that link metal parts in the plant’s new body shop. “If it doesn’t look good, at our next station, we’ve got to figure out what’s wrong.”

GM has a lot riding on the Cruze, a sleeker, lighter and better-appointed replacement for the Chevrolet Cobalt, as it tries to enter a market that for years has belonged to the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

To survive after its Chapter 11 reorganization, GM executives and workers know the Cruze, due in showrooms around May 2010, must sell far better than the Cobalt, an outdated model that has fallen far behind the Japanese.

Through May, GM has sold 44,829 Cobalts in the U.S., less than half the 97,505 Civics sold by Honda Motor Co. and the 101,708 Corolla/Matrix models sold by Toyota Motor Corp.

Most industry analysts expect the compact market to grow in coming years, with gasoline prices rising again and government fuel economy standards that will shift the market smaller by requiring the U.S. new vehicle fleet to average 35.5 mpg by 2016.

“It’s going to sell,” says Jim Graham, president of one of two United Auto Workers locals at the Lordstown complex, touting the Cruze’s quality and estimated fuel economy of 40 mpg.

GM also is banking on selling more expensive versions of the Cruze with more options and more profit as people seek the same luxury items in smaller cars as they do in larger ones.

In many ways, the Cruze and its 43-year-old factory are symbols of what GM wants to become.

The car is has a far nicer interior than its predecessor, and GM engineers across the globe have tried to make sure that it performs well and is quiet and reliable.

In the factory, backhoes and jackhammers constantly pound on the old concrete floor, digging it up to reconfigure the assembly line, making it more efficient. More than 500 GM workers and 1,100 outside contractors are involved, setting up 800 robots that are either new or reassigned from closed factories.

They’re replacing a 500-foot-long conveyor line with two shorter ones that will keep workers closer to the line and cut the amount of walking they must do to fetch parts. Under the new system, preassembled parts will come down the line with the car bodies for installation. On the Cobalt line, workers constantly have to return to benches for parts, taking away time on the line and cutting productivity.

“They’re not wasting any time walking or moving material around,” said Michele Lambert, manager of the Cruze launch.

Although the plant will be more productive, it still will employ about 2,200 workers, about the same as it has now. The increased productivity will be absorbed into the Cruze line, which has more complex interiors and safety features than the Cobalt. Also, GM is moving assembly of items such as the steering column or instrument panel back into the assembly plant, saving millions of dollars in transportation costs from parts suppliers, plant manager John Donahoe said.

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