updated 10/26/2005 3:56:51 PM ET 2005-10-26T19:56:51

General Motors Corp. on Wednesday began producing a new generation of six-speed transmissions it said are designed to improve fuel economy, reduce cabin noise and give a smoother ride.

The Hydra-Matic 6L80 debuts in the 2006 Chevrolet Corvette, Cadillac STS-V and Cadillac XLR-V. It will be featured in 25 different 2007 model-year vehicles, including several of GM’s new full-size sport utility vehicles.

GM invested $450 million to build the transmissions at its 65-year-old Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, which was used to build bombers during World War II. The plant is capable of producing 1,500 transmissions per day.

“The new, state-of-the-art Ypsilanti transmission facility is the first of many six-speed plants that will enable us to produce more than 3 million six-speed automatics annually by 2010,” said Kent Sears, GM Powertrain’s vice president of manufacturing.

GM said the upgrade preserved 600 jobs at the plant. The United Auto Workers allowed GM to modify work rules so hourly and salaried employees will work together in more efficient teams, GM said. Last week, the UAW agreed to have workers and retirees at the struggling automakers bear more of the costs for their health care.

GM and Ford Motor Co. shared development costs for the new transmissions in a historic partnership announced in 2002.

Ford spokesman Said Deep said Ford’s transmissions from the partnership will be coming out in new vehicles next year, but the company won’t say which vehicles.

Deep said Ford already has front-wheel and rear-wheel drive six-speed transmissions available on several vehicles, including the new Lincoln Zephyr, Mercury Milan and Ford Fusion sedans, the Ford Freestyle crossover and the Ford Explorer SUV.

The Hydra-Matic is the first of a new family of six-speed, rear-wheel drive transmissions. The transmissions feature two overdrive gears which reduce engine revolutions per minute by 9 percent at 60 miles per hour. That reduces fuel consumption.

GM estimates the transmission can help cut the time it takes to get from zero to 60 miles per hour by 7 percent and can enhance fuel economy by 4 percent.

The transmissions have a modular architecture that allows them to be adapted to a wide range of vehicles. Nearly half the parts on the four primary variants of the transmission are shared, and all of the variants can be built at the same facility, GM said.

GM will debut a six-speed transmission for front-wheel and all-wheel drive vehicles on the 2007 Saturn Aura.

The transmissions give GM one more way to differentiate its products in an extremely competitive market, especially as sales of SUVs are slumping. Last week, the world’s largest automaker reported a $1.6 billion loss in the third quarter.

Six-speed automatic transmissions are installed in less than 1 percent of vehicles sold today in North America, primarily high-performance sports cars and luxury sedans.

But GM has said that because of their potential for smoother driving and fuel efficiency, such engines will likely be found in roughly 15 percent of passenger vehicles by 2010 and about half of all vehicles by 2015.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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