MEXICO CITY -- Sparks fly as 200 robots weld and bolt together Nissan Sentras at one of the Japanese company's factories in Aguascalientes, Mexico, on a cool December morning.
The $2 billion facility, opened in November 2013, churns out 600 gleaming new cars a day and employs 3,000 workers. Acres of autos sit in the sun outside the plant, waiting to be loaded onto trains bound for the U.S., where consumers enjoying the lowest gasoline prices in five years are crowding auto dealerships.
The 192,000-square-meter (2.1-million-square-foot) Nissan Motor Corp. plant is one of half a dozen that have sprung up or been announced for central Mexico's industrial belt in the past five years, contributing to a nationwide $20 billion investment by global automakers eager to establish ready access to the U.S. market.
Mexican vehicle exports are expected to rise to a record 2.9 million in 2015, with more than 70 percent of the cars and light trucks headed to the U.S., according to the Mexican Automobile Industry Association.
December exports alone were up 21 percent over the previous year, to 195,091.
Mexico is also the world's sixth-biggest manufacturer of auto parts, with an estimated $81.5 billion in sales in 2014, according to trade group INA.
"The growth in production and in exports has been spectacular," Eduardo Solis, the AMIA's president, told reporters in January. "The growth reflects the confidence the industry has in our country."
The burgeoning auto industry is just one example of Mexico's manufacturing prowess -- and one reason investors think it will outperform the rest of Latin America in 2015.
"The growth pickup in the U.S. is going to be felt first and foremost in countries like Mexico," says Gerardo Rodriguez, a BlackRock Inc. portfolio manager. "Going into 2015, clearly Mexico is one of the markets that's looking attractive."
Mexico is No. 18 in Bloomberg Markets' ranking of the 25 most-promising emerging markets in which to invest. The nation has had a rocky couple of years. Estimates of 2014 economic growth are just 2.1 percent -- low for an emerging market -- after gross domestic product expanded 1.4 percent in 2013, President Enrique Pena Nieto's first full year in office.
Turmoil in developing nations last year sent the peso into a 12 percent tailspin, forcing the central bank to intervene.
An expected rush of new oil and gas investment after Pena Nieto opened the industry to foreign competition could be stalled by plummeting oil prices. More important, if low oil prices persist, Mexico's budget will get a shock, since the government depends on Petroleos Mexicanos, the state-owned oil company, for a third of its tax receipts.
Mexico hedged its oil sales for 2015 and is guaranteed $76 a barrel, but that hedge will end late in the year. Still, investors expect 2015 to be a turnaround year.
"Mexico is among our clear favorites in terms of fixed income and equities," says Jorge Unda, chief investment officer for Latin America at Spanish bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA. "Of all the emerging markets, it's the most tied to the American economy, and the American economy is going to continue growing."
The U.S., where GDP grew at an annualized 2.6 percent rate in the last three months of 2014 after a 5 percent jump in the third quarter, is the destination for 80 percent of Mexican exports. They include, in addition to oil and cars, flat-screen televisions, mobile phones, computers and airplane components. Total Mexican exports added up to $397.5 billion in 2014 -- 85 percent of them from manufacturing.
"There's very little debate, very little questioning of Mexico's manufacturing competitiveness," says Nikolaj Lippmann, Mexico equity strategist at Morgan Stanley. "That is very much something investors take for a given at this stage."
And the labor comes at a low price. Mexican autoworkers make an average of 20 percent of what their U.S. counterparts do, according to Luis Lozano, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Mexico City.
Investors are also bullish on the peso. Analysts forecast in January that the currency, after tumbling last year, would rebound by 9.3 percent in 2015, the second-biggest predicted gain against the greenback, after Russia's ruble, among 31 major currencies tracked by Bloomberg.
The boom in Mexican manufacturing is anchored by auto production, which increased 10 percent last year over 2013, according to the AMIA, and is projected to reach 5 million vehicles by 2020. On the Aguascalientes Nissan site, construction is about to start on another plant, a joint venture between Nissan and Germany's Daimler AG that will make both Infiniti and Mercedes- Benz luxury vehicles.
Another maker of luxury cars, Audi AG, also has plans to produce in Mexico starting in 2016, joining its parent company, Volkswagen AG, which makes more than 475,000 cars, including Beetles, Golfs and Jettas, in the country every year.
In December, General Motors, which made 678,388 automobiles last year in Mexico, announced it would spend $3.6 billion through 2018 to modernize its four Mexican plants.
The manufacturing boom hasn't been enough to save Pena Nieto's popularity, which plunged to 39 percent late last year in a Grupo Reforma poll amid slow growth and raging protests over his government's handling of the disappearance of 43 students, who were allegedly killed by drug gangs working with local police. His approval rating, down from 50 percent just four months earlier, has also been slapped by conflict-of- interest scandals in his administration.
The automakers haven't been kept away by the drug violence, which reached a peak under Pena Nieto's predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
Keishi Egawa, CEO of Mazda Motor Corp.'s Mexico unit, says the Guanajuato region, where Mazda opened a $770 million factory in early 2014, is relatively safe and that his only crime problem has been theft.
For that reason, Mazda ships some cars out of the country by sea rather than train.
The 5,000-employee Mazda plant will become the biggest overseas facility for the Hiroshima, Japan-based producer as it increases production to 250,000 vehicles annually by early 2016.
About half of the vehicles are being exported to the U.S. and Canada. Egawa says the country's proximity to the U.S. and its relatively open trade policies push aside all other considerations.
"Mexico is one of the most attractive manufacturing locations," Egawa says. "The potential for growth in Mexico is still tremendous."