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GM Tonawanda, Lockport plants supporting shift to trucks, SUVs

The 2020 Chevrolet Silverado HD pickup truck General Motors just unveiled will boost the automaker's Town of Tonawanda and Lockport plants.

The Tonawanda plant will build the vehicle's 6.6 liter V-8 engine and the Lockport plant will make its radiator, connecting both facilities to a prominent product in a GM lineup that increasingly favors trucks and SUVs over sedans.

The tooling for the new engine is part of a nearly $300 million investment in the Tonawanda site that GM announced in 2016.

"This is probably one of the biggest pieces of that investment," said Ram Ramanujam, the Tonawanda plant director.

Automotive plants rely on new investment and product lines to stay viable within a company's manufacturing network. GM is putting more emphasis on trucks and SUVs: The automaker has disclosed it will phase out production of six sedans by the end of this year, including the Chevrolet Impala, which uses a different engine produced at the plant.

Ramanujam said making the V-8 for the 2020 Silverado will help retain jobs at the plant, but whether it creates new jobs there will depend on customer demand for the vehicles. Production for the heavy-duty truck engine is set to start in April. The new engine will eventually support a new GMC truck, as well.

"This is probably one of GM's most important engines. All the truck engines are," said Chuck Herr, shop chairman for United Auto Workers Local 774. "That's what GM's making all their money on right now. For them to have the confidence in Tonawanda, it's an honor."

"There's a lot of pride when you see a truck going down the road and it's got your engine in it," Herr said.

Trucks and SUVs are grabbing ever more market share. According to Wards Intelligence, light trucks accounted for 69 percent of U.S. vehicle sales last year, compared to 53 percent in 2014.

GM's product strategy resonates locally. The Tonawanda plant has more than 1,500 hourly and salaried jobs, while the Lockport components plant has a combined workforce of nearly 1,200 employees. The region is also home to numerous dealerships selling GM brands.

Ram Ramanujam, GM Tonawanda plant director. (News file photo)

The Tonawanda plant makes small-block V-6 engines for the Silverado, as well as small-block V-8s for the Silverado, Tahoe and Suburban. The plant also makes the Ecotec 2.5-liter and 2-liter turbo engines for the Impala and five other GM vehicles.

The GM product lineup that the Tonawanda plant supports is in transition, with the automaker dropping production of some passenger cars.

The Tonawanda plant supports the Silverado, which was one of the top-selling vehicles in the country last year. But according to GM's website, the Tonawanda plant also makes Ecotec engines for the Impala and Cadillac CT6, two of the six sedans GM will phase out.

"We do supply engines to both cars and the smaller SUVs," Ramanujam said. "So at this point we've seen some impact, but nothing of great significance.We'll continue to monitor that."

While the local plants are preparing to support the new Silverado, GM as a corporation is undergoing an overhaul. The automaker is cutting about 4,000 salaried jobs from its workforce.

Ramanujam declined to say how many salaried jobs at the Tonawanda plant would be eliminated.

GM last year announced plans to cut jobs and halt production at five plants elsewhere in its manufacturing network later this year.

Amid all the changes at the GM corporate level, Herr said workers at the Tonawanda plant focus on what he said they can control: "Build the best engines we can, so we continue to keep this reputation and get more work in the future."

"We try to keep a positive attitude," Herr said. "Right now, Tonawanda's in a very good place. We have work for all our employees in our plant."

Herr said he and Ramanujam talk frequently about attracting new work to the site. "We're going to do whatever we need to do. If we have to get into electric engines, we're going to do whatever it takes to keep the plant going. We've been going 80 years and we want to keep that going."

The new V-8 engine is on display at the Buffalo Auto Show, which runs through Sunday at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. The 2020 Chevy Silverado is not at the show; it was unveiled earlier this week in Flint, Mich., where the vehicle will be assembled.

Area GM plants are supplying the radiator and V-8 engine for the 2020 Silverado. (Matt Glynn/Buffalo News)

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