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What else will be built here? Hint....


Ontario plant gears up for key Chrysler models

Automaker expands rear-drive lineup

By Brett Clanton / The Detroit News

The 300 Series is one of nine new vehicles Chrysler will launch in 2004.

Chrysler's Brampton plant

History: Acquired by Chrysler with purchase of American Motors Corp. in 1987.

Products: Chrysler 300 Series sedan, Dodge Magnum wagon (early 2004).

Output: 340,000 units.

Employment: 2,700.

The 300 Series is one of nine new vehicles Chrysler will launch in 2004.

Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News

Miranda Bianco works on the new Chrysler 300. The new vehicle is an updated, rear-wheel drive version. DaimlerChrysler plans to introduce 25 new or redesigned models during the next 36 months.

BRAMPTON, Ontario -- DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group spent more than $1 billion to overhaul its Brampton assembly plant near Toronto to be more flexible and efficient as the automaker shifts from building front-wheel drive to rear-wheel drive large cars.

The transformation saved Chrysler millions of dollars as it prepares to launch production of the Chrysler 300 Series sedan and Dodge Magnum sport wagon, due on the market early next year.

The automaker is counting on both vehicles to help boost sales and profits, but they may not be all that comes out of Brampton in years to come.

Chrysler officials said Thursday the revamped Brampton line will be able to simultaneously build three unique vehicles, as well as a prototype model, with different basic underpinnings, or platforms.

Such manufacturing flexibility has become a competitive necessity as Detroit automakers play catch-up to more nimble Asian rivals.

"We basically abandoned all our old paradigms (with the Brampton changeover)," said Frank Ewasyshyn, Chrysler's senior vice president of advanced manufacturing engineering.

Chrysler officials would not disclose what other vehicles might be built in Brampton, saying consumer demand and market conditions will determine if additional models are planned.

Michael Tonietto, the Brampton plant manager, declined to estimate production volumes when the revamped plant is at full capacity, saying only that annual output was 340,000 units before the overhaul began.

The renovated plant, like the old one, likely will run with three shifts, he said.

Ewasyshyn would not answer rumors that Brampton is gearing up to produce a new Dodge sedan, possibly even an update on the once-popular Charger model.

"Charger?" he said. "That's a credit card."

The Brampton plant had produced the Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde and 300M sedans, which were discontinued in August.

The first 300 sedan is scheduled to roll off the assembly line in early 2004, with production of the Magnum wagon set to begin later in the first quarter.

A wagon version of the 300 sedan to be sold in Europe, called the 300 Touring, goes into production in Brampton later in 2004, but is not considered a separate model line.

The 300 sedan and Magnum wagon are two of nine new Chrysler vehicles that will be launched in 2004, the beginning of a product rollout of 25 new or redesigned models during the next 36 months.

Chrysler has lost more than $4 billion since 2001 and is counting on the new cars and trucks to stoke revenues and profits.

About 75 percent of the new equipment going into the Brampton plant was recycled from other Chrysler plants, allowing the automaker to save 40 percent of retooling costs typical for a new vehicle launch, Ewasyshyn said. The savings realized were in the "millions," he said.

Brampton will use 25 percent more robots, a change that will enable the plant to slightly shave the time needed to build a single vehicle to just under 24 hours. However, none of the plant's 2,700 workers will be displaced as a result, Tonietto said.

Plant employees are eager for the new vehicle launches.

"We're in the last phases of tweaking, then we're good to go," said Juan Milian, a plant engineer who works in the stamping shop.

Bill Daniels, an employee trainer, is ready to get back on the job but said there are still kinks to smooth out. "It's an ongoing process because you're always going to run into little things."

The move to rear-wheel drive is a risky one for Chrysler. Although the automaker has consistently built rear-wheel drive trucks and sport utility vehicles, there has not been a Chrysler brand rear-wheel drive sedan since 1989's now defunct Fifth Avenue.

While some analysts worry that rear-wheel drive vehicles will be a tough sell in climates where there is snow and ice, Chrysler officials defend the new vehicles as better-performing and more stable than their front-wheel drive competitors.

With the changeover, additional floor space has been created in Brampton that could allow the facility to add even more vehicles in the future, Ewasyshyn said.

"How many?" he asked. "Stay tuned."

You can reach Brett Clanton at (313) 222-2612 or [email protected].
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