Chevrolet Cruze output begins with expectations high

Ordinarily, it would be a massive undertaking for any automaker.

A new model on an all-new platform. A new body shop and new stamping operations. A workforce of 4,500, including 600 temporary employees. Numerous new assembly processes and parts. And a vast manufacturing complex with a spotty history of engineering problems and volatile labor relations.

A little more than a year removed from bankruptcy, new GM officially began production of the Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan in Lordstown, Ohio, today.

The reconstituted automaker has set nothing less than the highest bar for itself -- challenge preconceived notions about what a compact car built by an American automaker in the United States can be.

Chevrolet has already thrown the gauntlet down with its Cruze ad campaign targeting direct comparisons to the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

GM vows to deliver a car with the quality Americans desire and with features we don't expect in the segment -- 40 mpg, 10 standard airbags, a quiet cabin, a refined powertrain, and interior room that rivals some mid-size sedans.

"Of equal importance,” GM North America chief Mark Reuss said today, “we are working to redefine the views on a domestic carmaker building such a car here in the United States."

"This is everything for us," Reuss later told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Winning in this small compact car segment is our first demonstration that we can win, that we can beat whatever the market throws at us."

With engineering all but locked in, it's now up to the plant to deliver on the promise.

The Cruze actually has been in production since Aug. 9. Bob Parcell, the Lordstown plant's new manager, told the Plain Dealer a problem with a supplier interrupted early production, but the problem was quickly fixed

In the body shop alone, GM has undertaken its largest installation of robots ever -- more than 800 mechanical arms and eyes that weld and rotate metal.

According to the Youngstown Business Journal, the plant will have built more than 600 Cruzes before today -- mostly to measure and fine tune assembly processes. Those early cars were shipped to GM product engineers for validation testing.

Cruze shipments to U.S. showrooms begin next week.

There's no doubt GM has benefited from the earlier launch of Cruze production at plants in Asia and Europe. It is now Chevy's top-selling model worldwide, with global sales of 165,000 year-to-date.

But the reality is that GM's latest new models for North American markets haven't fared as well as new vehicles from Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche AG, according to the latest J.D. Power and Associates' Initial Quality Survey. New models such as the Cadillac SRX and Buick LaCrosse were dogged by minor glitches that kept GM from making overall gains in the study.

Moreover, GM's small car offerings have fallen short in one way or the other for some 40 years now.

If a new GM has truly emerged, we'll know it after early Cruze owners fill out their initial quality surveys from J.D. Power and Associates next spring. And when U.S. consumers agree --in meaningful numbers -- to pay more for the latest compact Chevrolet than they ever did for a Colbalt, Cavalier, Citation or Nova. Or when Corolla owners defect en masse for the bow-tie.