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ENGINE PLANT'S 3.1-LITER V6 CAN'T GO ON MUCH LONGER

While the General Motors Powertrain plant in the Town of Tonawanda gears up to produce a new Saturn engine, an older product can begin to see its own sunset.

GM's six-cylinder, 3.1-liter engine, a stalwart Tonawanda powerplant for going on two decades, may be nearing the end of its useful life, industry analysts said.

"We think it's going to be decreasing," said Treffen White, an industry analyst at J.D. Power and Associates. Although the engine's tenure may continue for five more years, the 3.1 liter's days are numbered, according to industry analysts.

A forerunner of today's V6 was introduced at Tonawanda in 1979 and enlarged to its current size in 1981. Used to power sedans like the Buick Century and Pontiac Grand Am, the 3.1 is Tonawanda's highest-volume product, shipping 731,300 units in model year 1995.

But the engine's pushrod technology is being supplanted with more modern overhead cam drives, such as the 2.2 liter "World Engine" that Tonawanda will produce starting late next year. The plant expects the new task will stabilize employment at about 4,200, offsetting declines in other engines.

"In '94, the decision was to stay with (the technology) for the 3.1 as a major cost saving," White said. "GM is famous for pushrod engines -- both for getting performance out of them and being able to sell them."

The older V6 is going into LS versions of Chevrolet's revived Malibu, which has received good reviews and looks to become a hot seller. But Tonawanda's production is getting only a piece of the Malibu business, GM sources said. While Tonawanda is supplying most of the engines going to the Malibu assembly site in Wilmington, Del., GM's engine plant in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico is supplying a higher-volume Malibu assembly plant in Oklahoma City.

DRI/McGraw Hill Inc. expects Wilmington to produce 97,000 Malibus this year, while Oklahoma City churns out 109,000, plus another 85,000 units of the Cutlass companion car. The Boston-based auto industry analyst didn't predict the number of V6-powered Malibus to be shipped.

Marilyn Rowe, communications manager for GM Powertrain, said the company doesn't talk about supply issues that are competitively sensitive. She did say that production allocation decisions can change quickly and often.

Cost, capacity, geography and other factors play into automakers' supply decisions, said Ronald E. Harbour, an industry analyst at Harbour & Associates in Troy, Mich.

"GM has numerous criteria to go through to arrive at those (product source) decisions -- it's not an emotional decision," he said.

Tonawanda ranked among the 10 most efficient engine plants in the U.S. and Canada in Harbour's 1997 study, buttressing its ability to attract new tasks.

For the immediate future, analysts said, the 3.1's prospects are brightened by its presence on a range of GM cars. "That (engine) is still used in quite a few major platforms," White said.

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