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Chevrolet Sonic helps Detroit shake off rust

Jan. 05, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

DETROIT -- When the word reached the Orion Assembly Plant, it spread along the serpentine assembly line like news of a death or natural disaster: General Motors, the biggest automaker in the world, had filed for bankruptcy protection.

On that grim day in 2009, Chevrolet and Pontiac sedans kept rolling down the line. And 1,700 worried workers stayed at their stations even as GM announced it would close the plant in a desperate bid to survive.

"The unknown was the scariest part," recalled Gerald Lang, who had worked at Orion for two years installing dashboards and doors. "We really had no clue what was going to happen."

There was something else that the workers didn't know: They were witnessing the opening act of one of the greatest recovery stories in American business.

Nearly four years later, Chevrolets are still moving down the assembly line under the plant's 82-acre roof. Lang and his co-workers now build the Sonic, the best-selling subcompact car in the nation. It's a vehicle no one thought could be made profitably in the U.S., by a company that few people thought would last.

But GM has not only survived, it has earned $16 billion in profits in the past three years. And the industry is on track to make this year its best year since 2007.

Even when their company was in bankruptcy, GM engineers and designers across the world never stopped working on the Sonic, a new mini car that would take on the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris. The Sonic was part of a wave of small cars from Detroit that came with more than just good gas mileage and a lower price: They had aggressive styling, better handling and more amenities like leather seats and navigation systems.

GM is confident the Sonic will soon turn a profit, largely because workers at Orion keep finding ways to cut costs. Earlier this year, a team in the body shop suggested a small fix in the plant's machinery. It ensures that the car's frame fits together correctly every time and reduces the amount of steel going to the scrap heap, saving money.

"We recognize that we've got to work together as partners, because we're going to succeed or fail together," Orion Plant Manager Steve Brock said.

Detroit has seen many booms and busts in a century of auto making. There were 41 car companies in the city in 1913. Almost all failed or were consolidated into the Big Three. Chrysler nearly went bankrupt in 1980 before being rescued by the government. Sales ebb and flow with the economy, gas prices and even the weather.

But industry experts say things have changed. The reforms Detroit undertook make it less prone to financial disaster. Car companies have closed plants, laid off workers and sold or closed entire brands. GM now has 12 U.S. assembly plants and 101,000 employees in North America. A decade ago, it had 22 plants and 202,000 employees.

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