Rear-wheel-drive cars may make a comeback at General Motors.
Company insiders and suppliers say the company is developing a global rwd platform that could include as many as three Cadillacs, the next Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro (already rwd) and a Buick. The models would be built in North America.
Cadillac General Manager John Smith told Automotive News that more rwd cars may help Cadillac attack the global luxury market because Cadillac's competitors have rear drive.
'Rear drive appears to be superior in the world market,' Smith said. The DeVille may be the only Cadillac model that will retain front-wheel drive, he said.
Plans are not complete, but sources say GM is studying seriously the new platform for the 2001 or 2002 model year.
Tentative plans call for producing the following models from the platform: the Cadillac Eldorado and Catera; the Pontiac and Chevrolet muscle cars; a Buick; and the Opel Omega, sister car to the Catera. The Omega and Catera are rwd today.
The Cadillac Seville may be added later.
'We're not definitely going to rear drive (on the Eldorado), but we are studying it,' said Ed Berger, brand manager for the Eldorado and Seville. 'We're also considering Seville for rear drive.'
THE GLOBAL ATTACK
At the GM annual meeting May 23, Chairman Jack Smith said he wants GM to sell 5 million vehicles outside North America by 2006, up from 3.1 million last year.
Cadillac will start its global offensive with the redesigned 1998 Seville, which goes on sale in December. Cadillac expects the front-drive car to compete directly with the Lexus LS 400, Mercedes-Benz E class and BMW 5 series. Exports will account for 20 percent of Seville's sales, up from the current 5 percent, the division predicts.
Berger said the Eldorado will also be a major global player. Some suppliers say the Eldorado will be halted after the 1999 model year and redeveloped for the rear-drive platform.
GM currently produces only three rear-drive cars in North America - the Camaro and Firebird at the Ste. Therese, Quebec, plant and the Chevrolet Corvette in Bowling Green, Ohio. The Catera, produced in Germany, is Cadillac's only rear-drive vehicle. The division killed the rear-drive Fleetwood after the 1996 model year.
Cadillac's John Smith said the Catera likely will be produced in North America, but he said the plant has not been selected. All other Cadillacs are produced in Hamtramck, Mich.
He said that in the future, Cadillacs will be produced at two plants: the Hamtramck plant and another facility to be announced.
Some supplier and industry sources predicted the rear-drive models will be assembled in Ste. Therese, but a GM insider and union sources at Ste. Therese were not nearly as optimistic.
The key issue: The plant has not been approved for a flexible body shop, which the facility will need to produce the new models. A flexible body shop can assemble bodies of various models in the same plant.
Richard Fournier, president of UAW Local 1163, which represents Ste. Therese's 1,500 workers, said he believes GM must decide by the end of the year to add a flexible body shop if Ste. Therese is to get the rear-drive program.
He estimated the cost of the new body shop at $300 million.
'I'm afraid for Ste. Therese,' Fournier said. 'GM has done nothing for Ste. Therese since October 1995 when the plant went down to one shift.'
Ste. Therese produces only the Firebird and Camaro, building 448 of the cars daily on one shift, or about 111,000 per year. The plant's capacity is 220,000 vehicles on two shifts. The company has neither told union officials if the plant will get a new product nor said if there will be a next-generation Camaro and Firebird.
Ste. Therese is Quebec's only auto assembly plant.
'GM should stop playing with our nerves,' Fournier said. 'We have good labor relations with GM, so we now think it's time for GM to return the favor.'
A GM executive, knowledgeable about the proposed new platform, said Ste. Therese is 'a good candidate' for the rear-drive program because of unused capacity there, but he said the company is leery of labor relations at the plant.
Fournier admitted the local has had labor problems with GM, but he said the number of grievances has been reduced from 3,000 in 1987 to 300 this year. He noted that the local was the first to approve the national contract this year.
He said the union also is trying to reduce its current man hours per car from 30 to 26, which the company has requested.
A global rear-drive program may be the only salvation for the Camaro and Firebird and the Ste. Therese plant, a GM executive said. 'The insurance industry has done its best to kill off muscle cars,' he said. 'And if St. Therese has any problem, it's the product they're building there; there's not enough volume.'
Through May 31 of this year, Camaro-Firebird sales were down 23 percent from 1996. Chevrolet dealers had sold 26,066 Camaros; Firebird sales totaled 12,817.
The GM executive said the next-generation Camaro has been neither approved nor killed, but he said Ste. Therese 'is well maintained and modern,' and if the plant can get sufficient product 'it might give (Camaro and Firebird) an extended life.'
Opinion differs on the future of the Firebird and Camaro. Some suppliers predict that GM will approve a next-generation muscle car program, but that only one of the two nameplates will survive.
As for a rear-drive Buick, the model is characterized only as 'potential' by GM staffers and suppliers. The car may be either the next Riviera or a new entry-luxury sedan.
The danger, they say, is that the new Buick could hurt sales of the Catera or some Oldsmobiles, such as the Aurora and Intrigue.
But the Buick would give GM another rear-drive vehicle for consumers who don't want to buy a Cadillac.