GM’s Oshawa plant is long on flexibility, short on concrete future prospects

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GM’s vast Oshawa Assembly Plant in Ontario has built many different models over the decades, but never has the production mix been as varied or as rapidly shifting as now. And the plant’s future appears as mixed as the products it builds.

The former Oshawa Car Plant (so named to distinguish it from the one-time Oshawa Truck plant that was shuttered in 2009) currently builds six distinct models on two lines. Arguably its highest-profile product is the Chevrolet Camaro, but probably not for much longer: GM has announced that it will move Camaro production out of Oshawa in 2015.

The good news is that the line that builds Camaro is so flexible that it would not be a huge upheaval to replace Camaro with some other product. That’s the hope being held out by Greg Moffatt, chair of Unifor union Local 222 at the plant.

Meanwhile, the Camaro shares the flexline with the Cadillac XTS large luxury sedan, the Buick Regal midsize sport sedan, and the wholly redesigned Chevrolet Impala full-size sedan.  Although three of the four flexline cars are relatively low-volume niche products, their combined volume is enough to keep that line running on three shifts.

Things are quieter over on the consolidated line.  Down from two shifts to one (albeit currently adding some Saturday overtime), this line builds Chevrolet Equinox CUVs and the Impala Limited.

The Equinox represents supplementary production for the maxed-out CAMI plant in Ingersoll, Ont. This plant is the main source of the Equinox and GMC Terrain.

The Impala Limited is actually the previous-generation Impala, still being built for fleet sales in the U.S. The Impala has long been a mainstay in both rental fleets and as a police interceptor.

On the plus side, GM announced last fall that production on the consolidated line would be extended to 2016, delaying an earlier plan to close it next summer. In its statement GM attributed the extension to “projected market demand for the Chevrolet Impala Limited and Chevrolet Equinox.”

Questions, however, remain. Although GM declined to provide production volume figures, data from Automotive News shows that Equinox production in Oshawa fall sharply in 2013, at the same time as it has grown correspondingly at the former Saturn plant in Spring Hill, TN. And Impala police cars must be living on borrowed time, given that GM now sells the Australian-built rear-wheel drive Caprice for that purpose in the U.S.

At the same time, while GM touts impressive growth in retail sales for the new-generation Impala, total combined sales for both generations in the U.S. and Canada were down 12.4 per cent through October. Neither GM Canada nor Automotive News provides a breakdown between the volumes of the old and new designs, but a GM Canada source told CAW recently that “the old Impala was almost 70-per cent fleet (and 30 per cent retail); the plan now is to reverse that.”

Again according to Automotive News, total production at Oshawa Assembly Plant in 2012 was 378,000. That was a fractional increase over 2011, but still far below the all-time peak of 671,000 cars in 2003. And, through October, production was down 21 percent from the same period last year.

The planned mix of products for Oshawa in the near-term seems likely to generate generous per-unit profits for GM. As well, the plant has a long tradition of winning awards for quality. But the prospects for future production volumes must remain a deep concern for a workforce and a city that have already seen thousands of high-quality jobs evaporate over the past five years.