updated 4/19/2004 2:05:30 PM ET 2004-04-19T18:05:30

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are investing $720 million in plants to build a new six-speed automatic transmission being developed under a first-of-its kind partnership.

The front-wheel-drive transmission is expected to offer an estimated 4 percent improved fuel economy over traditional four-speed transmissions in front-wheel-drive cars.

The world's two largest automakers said more than 1,100 jobs will be retained because of the partnership, including 250 in Ohio and the remainder in Michigan.

"Six-speeds are the future," Dave Szczupak, Ford's vice president for powertrain operations, said Monday. "They help to optimize power, smooth operation and fuel economy."

Under a memorandum of understanding signed in October 2002, Ford and GM agreed to cooperate on designing, engineering and testing the new transmission as well as working with suppliers to develop and buy components.

GM is investing $350 million and Ford is investing $370 million to build the transmission. It will be manufactured separately at GM's Warren transmission plant and Ford's transmission plants in Sharonville, Ohio, and Sterling Heights.

"The investment underscores GM's commitment to keep Michigan's auto industry and communities world class and strong," said Tom Stephens, GM's group vice president for powertrains.

United Auto Workers vice president Dick Shoemaker said the project proves that manufacturers don't have to go to the South, China or elsewhere for such projects.

"The announcement of this new product is certainly a cause for celebration, but not cause for us to rest on our success," he said.

Ford and GM previously had sold each others' parts and had other minimal business relationships over the years, but this effort marks the first time the two have joined on such a broad program.

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