GM Revamps Spring Hill for Chevy Traverse Production

October 7, 2008
2009 Chevrolet Traverse

2009 Chevrolet Traverse

GM proudly announces--with Chevy Traverse crossovers now rolling off the line--that the conversion of its Spring Hill, Tennessee, plant was "one of GM's fastest from plan development to product rolling off the line." The automaker has spent the last 12 months and some $600 million readying the manufacturing facility for Traverse duty.

Conversion of the facility was quite involved and included such changes as the addition of 31 miles of conveyor belts, 623 assembly robots, and 1,625 tons of support steel in the general assembly building.

Spring Hill, Tennessee, was the spiritual center for the birth of the Saturn brand back in 1990. It was also the site of the cult-like Saturn Homecomings (drawing 44,000 owners in 1999), the locus of a landmark UAW agreement, and home of efficient, Japanese-style manufacturing techniques that had not yet been employed in American auto manufacturing.

And yet GM's Traverse announcement makes just one oblique reference to Spring Hill's history, quickly stating that "more than 3.752 million vehicles have been produced at the facility since it opened in 1990."

Is it symbolic that a three-row, 4,700-plus-pound, seven-passenger crossover has officially and completely swallowed the small vehicle that Roger Smith once crowed was "A Different Kind of Car" from "A Different Kind of Company"? When Saturn was released in 1990, the public was thrilled to have an American small car they were proud to purchase. There are still rabid Saturn fans out there, clinging to their first- and second-gen SL1s. And while the first Saturns were never groundbreaking, they were arguably the most competitive, fully domestic small cars ever produced. But GM didn't invest in updates to keep the them competitive (roughly eight years with the same mechanicals), and as Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas advanced with new generations, Saturn models grew long in the tooth and were forced to soldier on with cosmetic updates. Saturn Spring Hill production of small cars was ultimately abandoned, and GM left small car design and manufacture for its Saturn brand to the people who know how to do it: the Europeans.

Taken another way, one could argue that some elements of the Chevy Traverse are symbolic of the lessons GM learned with Saturn. The Traverse's styling, powertrain, and attention to detail (with the exception of too much plasti-chrome on the instrument panel) are loads better than Saturn ever managed with its SL-, SW-, or SC-series cars. The Spring Hill plant continues its dedication to environmental responsibility, with GM recycling more than 22,000 tons of scrap metal in the recent Spring Hill renovation.

But the irony is inescapable: On the very hallowed ground where GM was to pave the way for an all-new era of the American small car, it now produces a 5,000-pound behemoth (a recent Motor Trend Traverse LTZ AWD rang in at 5,111 pounds) that manages an OK 24 mpg highway, 23 mpg with AWD. Motor Trend saw observed mileage as low as 12.1 mpg.

The original Saturns were all about efficiency, from manufacturing right on down to good old mpg. If GM had invested as much time, energy, and money in Saturn as it did in Hummer, Tahoe, and Escalade, might Spring Hill now be producing a Honda Fit rival? Or a Yaris competitor? Or perhaps a small hybrid or a mini car? Here's hoping the jilted ghosts of Spring Hill's past don't rear their heads during Traverse production. We'll be on the lookout for bizarre Chevrolet recalls...--Colin Mathews

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