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GM's Oklahoma City plant will build mid-size SUVs

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ General Motors will soon start making sport utility vehicles here instead of family sedans.

This is the latest GM shop to convert from car to truck production as the company profits from the lucrative market for SUVs and pickups.

In the last 10 years, plants in Texas, New Jersey and Missouri have also converted. Industry analysts say three types of SUVs will be produced in Oklahoma City, including new models with three rows of seats. The official announcement is expected Tuesday.

The plant, which used to make Chevy Malibus, has been retooled to make extended-length versions of the Chevy TrailBlazer and the GMC Envoy and the regular-length Oldsmobile Bravada, industry analyst Jim Hall said. General Motors' headquarters in Detroit is to make the official announcement on the plant's new product Tuesday.

All three models are mid-sized SUVs.

Hall, vice president of industry and analysis at AutoPacific Inc.'s Detroit office, said the changes at the Oklahoma City plant reflect the strength of the SUV market.

``Barring heavy taxation of gasoline, it has legs to run to 2008 and 2009 easily,'' he said.

The only concern for the future will be a new generation of automobile buyers who grew up with the SUV.

``They will be the first generation where their parents drove SUVs,'' Hall said. ``Kids don't usually want to drive their parents cars.''

Increased competition has driven sales of some individual models down, such as the Ford Explorer. Ford is launching a redesigned Explorer this year.

``There's a migration of customers going from cars to trucks,'' said Dan Flores, GM spokesman. ``The customer is looking for more functionality, more room to store stuff in the back. Grocery bags. They want more room, more power.''

Auto companies are introducing more and more sport utility models every year. In 1995, 15 models entered the market. Next year, 30 new models are expected, said Russ Youngs, a GM plant manager in Oklahoma City.

The Oklahoma City plant built its last Chevy Malibu on May 11. An assembly line worker won the car after he was one of 10 chosen in a lottery. The ten workers received a key and the one whose key started the car got to take it home.

More than 2,000 hourly workers have been temporarily laid off while a few hundred workers stay on to help contractors with the $750 million renovation of the plant.

Inside, workers on bicycles and motorized carts zip along cement pathways carrying out equipment used to make sedans and bringing in machinery used to make trucks.

Youngs said workers will come back in phases for training on the new machinery. They'll also get training on the company's new work culture, he said. GM is trying to give assembly line workers more responsibility, hoping they will take leadership roles to improve the quality and cost effectiveness of the vehicles, he said.

``What allows them to participate and be actively involved in the business is leadership,'' the plant manager said. ``If you knew what the industry was like 20 years ago and what we're trying to do today. It's upside down.''

The first of the Oklahoma City plant's SUVs will come off the production line in November for testing. Regular production will begin during the first couple months of 2002.

As with the Malibu, each vehicle will be marked with the state outline of Oklahoma inside the driver's side door frame.

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