The Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans made here roll into their 12th model year today amid signs that the vehicles are beginning to lose some of their consumer appeal.
Production at the Southeast Baltimore plant is off 15 percent this year, prompting some industry representatives to wonder if the Astro and Safari are beginning to suffer from the lack of a major overhaul since they were introduced in 1984.
The vans' old design is also being blamed for the Baltimore plant's low productivity rating -- 27th among the 36 truck plants in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
"The Astro and Safari are getting long on the tooth," said David B. Healy, an auto analyst with S. G. Warburg & Co. "They are old models, and they are competing against some fresher looks from Chrysler and from Ford's new Windstar."
Michael Flynn, associate director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, said, "Older vehicles typically experience decreased sales, and this seems to be what is happening to the Safari and Astro."
Edward Lapham, executive editor of Automotive News, an industry trade publication, said the trend is moving away from truck-like, rear-wheel-drive vans like those made in Baltimore to front-wheel-drive, car-like models -- the Lumina, Ford Windstar and the new Chrysler minivans.
But for years, the GM vans maintained a niche with drivers who wanted the towing power of a rear-wheel-drive van.
As recently as early last year, GM was considering a significant increase in Astro and Safari production, perhaps even adding a third shift to the 3,400 workers at the Broening Highway plant.
"A third shift was one of a number of things the plant was looking at to boost production," said Rodney A. Trump, president of United Auto Workers Local 239, which represents the hourly workers at the plant. "But that never materialized.
"The reason: Demand for the product never reached their anticipated levels. They [GM marketing officials] try to judge where the market is going and they seldom get it right."
Plant officials declined requests for interviews to discuss the new 1996 vans and the plant's future.
Mr. Healy said the Astro and Safari are scheduled for a face-lift in 1997, but a complete make-over won't come until the end of the century. "And nobody knows where they are going to build the new vans," he said.
In the meantime, GM should be looking for ways to make changes in the Astro/Safari to boost productivity at the Baltimore plant, said James E. Harbour, president of Troy, Mich.-based Harbour & Associates Inc., an automotive research company.
In a report on the manufacturing productivity of automotive plants in the United States, Canada and Mexico, Mr. Harbour said Baltimore's productivity improved by 3 percent over the past year, but Baltimore still needs 25 percent more workers to assemble an Astro or Safari than Ford needs to make the Aerostar, a competing rear-wheel-drive van, in St. Louis.
And despite Baltimore's increased productivity, it dropped two places in the Harbour study standings to 27th as other plants (Chrysler assembly factories in Canada and Ohio) posted even bigger gains in efficiencies.
Mr. Trump said the productivity ratings have nothing to do with the Baltimore's plant work force, which he insists is as good as any.
"It's the design of the vehicle," he said, explaining that thousands more parts are needed to build an Astro than the Aerostar.
Company .. .. .. .. .. .. .Percentage
Chrysler Corp. .. .. .. .. .. ...41.2
Ford Motor Co. .. .. .. .. .. ...29.1
General Motors .. .. .. .. .. ...21.6
Others (imports) .. .. .. .. .. ..8.1