Flint-built engine is aging but still in the running
THE FLINT JOURNAL FIRST EDITION
Sunday, February 27, 2005
By Todd Seibttseibt@flintjournal.com
FLINT - Numbers don't lie.
General Motors' 3.8-liter V-6 engine, built exclusively at GM Powertrain Flint North by members of UAW Local 599, is fading away, based on any objective measure.
Since 1998, according to the closely watched and independent Harbour Report, GM has slashed production of the long-lived 3800 engine by about 32 percent, from nearly 800,000 engines a year to fewer than 542,000 in 2003, the latest year available.
In that same time frame, nearly 300 jobs have evaporated from the engine line at Flint North, about 18 percent of the total.
And the bleeding isn't over: One shift was cut last year, and some Flint North workers fear more cutbacks are looming.
That's because the 3800 no longer will be the supercharged engine in Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo SS models, two high-volume sellers for GM that were given new designs and new engines for 2006.
So, the 3800 is down - but don't count it out.
The engine seems to have more lives than cylinders. It is now the base engine in the all-new 2006 Buick LaCrosse and Buick Lucerne.
As recently as the North American International Auto Show in January, GM's powertrain czar, Tom Stephens, declined to write off the 3800.
"I've been in too many of these discussions (about when the 3800 might go out of production)," Stephens said. "I've learned to keep my mouth shut."
Two decades ago, people were saying the 3800 was on its last legs, Stephens noted. And yet it motors on.
The sturdy 3.8-liter engine is a consumer favorite and industry award winner, and constantly has been updated over the years, making it a leaner, meaner, more efficient machine.
But there is simply no denying the 3800's age. GM has been steadily phasing in more modern, adaptable and powerful engine designs, supplanting the steadfast 3800.
The new kids on the engine block include the so-called "global" 3.6-liter V-6 to be built at a new facility attached to GM's Flint Engine South, at the corner of Van Slyke and W. Bristol roads.
In contrast to the 3800, the new engine is almost a Mr. Potato Head power plant: Parts can be snapped and slapped onto it to transform its displacement and powertrain configuration for a wide variety of vehicles. GM is building it in 2.8 liter turbocharged trim, has turned out a concept 3.2-liter, and could build it as a 3.8-liter version, if it wanted.
It can go front-wheel-, rear-wheel- or all-wheel-drive. And it can be used in hybrids.
The 3800, by comparison, is used to power front-wheel-drive cars, and comes in two basic flavors: Normal and supercharged.
Don Wilson, shop chairman of Local 599 at GM Flint Powertrain North, acknowledges that the 3800 is approaching the end of the road - but it's not there yet.
"As GM phases it out, and puts in newer-style engines, it's just going to eventually put us completely out of the business with the 3800 engine," Wilson said.
That means that Local 599 officials and members have to work harder than ever to win new business, especially as a components supplier, feeding GM transmission, pistons and other parts.
GM Flint Powertrain North, adjacent to the old Buick City, also includes a passel of component factories.
The site has a high average seniority level, Wilson said. The majority of Local 599's members started working for GM in the 1970s, Wilson noted. Some autoworkers date to the 1960s, while some started as late as 2000, he added.
They have proven that they can adapt to changes, from the International UAW and the corporation alike - even as they build high-quality products, Wilson said.
Meanwhile, Wilson does see encouraging signs - like the "take rate" on the 3800 in the Buick LaCrosse. Many buyers are opting for the 3800 because it's less expensive than an uplevel 3.6-liter.
And GM product experts say consumers are responding well to the 3800 in the LaCrosse, which they find quieter and more competent than they remembered. In addition, the base V-6 compares favorably with other cars in the class, which typically start with a less powerful four-cylinder engine.
GM honchos haven't said when the 3800 will officially retire. Publicly, the automaker says the 3800 remains in production plans through 2009.
Wilson said Local 599 will have a better idea of any potential production cuts about the middle of March, when GM conducts a "state of the business" meeting.
But while Flint North dwindles, Flint South gains. A $300-million addition at South, which already builds 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder engines for midsize sport utilities, should start building global V-6 engines in about a year. (South was built in 1999 for about $500 million.)
At full production, the new V-6 addition will take about 350 workers, drawn from other area plants, GM says.
There currently are about 765 employees at Flint South, where hourly workers are represented by UAW Local 659.
South has been a significant success for GM, the UAW and Flint. The smooth and powerful 4200 has been named one of the world's best power plants four years running by Ward's AutoWorld.
But a modern engine plant comes with a modern dilemma: It takes fewer souls to assemble a similar number of cylinders.
For example, South's 765 hourly and salaried workers kicked out 468,936 engines in 2003, Harbour reported.
At North, using much older equipment in a much older factory, it took 1,296 workers to build 541,908 engines, Harbour said.
Which means in about a year, when both engine lines are humming at South, there will be about 1,100 workers building two completely different types of engines - nearly 200 fewer workers than North used to build a single engine type in 2003.
South is not home free, though. Just last week, it announced about 75 indefinite layoffs to adjust volume to meet market demands.
Ironically, the new Buick LaCrosse and Lucerne both offer the 3.6-liter engine as an upgrade. That engine at present is built at plants in Canada, Australia and Japan.
So, theoretically, when South's 3.6-liter line ramps up, two Flint-built engines could one day be competing for the hearts and minds of modern Buick buyers.
Not to mention the jobs of Flint-area residents.