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High-tech, low-cost cars coming from Detroit's Big Three

Any young person who began high school last fall should be able to buy a good, American-built car from General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler for $5,000 to $6,000 by the time he or she graduates in 1989. This, at least, is the goal of three revolutionary development programs begun in the last 12 to 18 months by the Big Three auto companies. The cars -- Saturn at GM, Alpha at Ford, and Liberty at Chrysler -- are planned as totally new automobiles in terms of how they're built, what they'll cost the buyer, how profitable they'll be for the companies making them, even, to some extent, what they're made of.

At GM and Ford the United Automobile Workers (UAW) has been deeply involved in the development of these cars. The union role is needed to enable the companies to reduce costs as much as possible, partly by bringing new, more efficient work practices into the auto plants.

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The experimental GM and Ford development programs are designed to determine whether the US makers and their union workers can profitably build small cars at costs that are competitive with Japan.

This will take some doing. The Japanese not only have the advantage of wages and benefits that are some 40 percent lower, but their cars also benefit from the extremely favorable dollar-yen relationship and tax subsidies granted by the Japanese government on exported autos and other products. On the other hand, these cars do have the penalty of transportation costs from Japan.

The most advanced of the new development programs is GM's Saturn Project, which will ultimately be a $5 billion effort involving the building of a five-plant automotive complex.

So unusual is this program that a separate GM corporation has been started. Some 325 full-time employees from GM's advanced project and manufacturing engineering and design staffs have been working on the project since June of 1982. The new corporation's president, William Hoglund, who headed up the Pontiac Division during the development phase of the plastic-bodied Fiero, will organize an entirely new dealer organization in which every Saturn dealer must have a separate dealership to handle the car.

Because Saturn will employ about 6,000 people directly, and perhaps another 12,000 workers in related businesses, the project has been sought by more than 22 states and a couple of hundred communities. A decision as to its location is expected early next month.

GM's latest technology will be used for the Saturn. One innovation will be an electronically controlled 4-speed automatic transmission.

Chrysler's entry into this competition, the Liberty, was formerly labeled the Concept 90 project. It will be a subcompact with either a 3- or 4-cylinder engine.

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Strong emphasis in this car, as with GM's, will be placed on modular construction, using 6 to 12 multiple-component units that could be manufactured and assembled by suppliers around the United States or even overseas, shipped to the final assembly plant, and then quickly assembled into a car on a short production line. This reduces costs by allowing more of the work to be done off-site.

Chrysler chairman Lee A. Iacocca, however, has said that his company will probably build Liberty overseas unless the US does something to eliminate the imbalance between the American dollar and the Japanese yen. While the Liberty car itself is not affected by the joint Chrysler-Mitsubishi small-car project announced last week, its name has been criticized and may be changed. Iaccoca heads up the committee to refurbish the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Liberty will have a largely plastic body and rely on 12 microprocessors to handle electrical and engine functions. Liberty components will also be used to build a new minivan, possibly a smaller competitor to Chrysler's current minivans, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager.

The Chrysler chairman has also vowed that Liberty will be in production before Saturn, a claim not to be taken lightly, as Chrysler has already demonstrated its ability to move much faster than its larger competitors.

Ford Motor Company is in the early stages of its Alpha project, which involves the development of a new, less-costly, more high-tech system for its ``factory of the future'' and its ``small car of the future.'' Ford is working closely with the UAW, clearly indicating the car will be a domestic product.

Ford expects to remain quiet about the project until next fall. A company spokesman, however, says: ``Alpha is Ford's highest-priority advanced project. It involves a fundamental approach to defining Ford's factories of the future.

``It will incorporate leading-edge technology in all aspects of bringing a car to market, some of which we have been developing for some time. Included will be the paperless design, development, and manufacturing processes, plus the ideal application of many new technologies and the optimum in direction between people and technology.''

Joseph M. Callahan is editor of Automotive Industries magazine.

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