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As U.S. auto plants remain idle, China's are open again for business

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

While COVID-19 has stopped auto assembly lines across North America, Chinese plants are revving up again after closing there in late January.

Major automakers from General Motors to BMW to Toyota say their factories in China have reopened, including the virus epicenter in the Wuhan province.

A worker assembles a Polestar 2 EV in Luqiao, China. Volvo has begun production of the all-new car which will be exported to Europe and the U.S. It is key to the automaker's electrification plans.

The openings include key product startups from Volvo and Tesla. The Chinese-owned Swedish automaker flipped the switch this week on its all-new Polestar 2, a key car in its global electrification strategy. Tesla has reportedly returned to full production at its all-new Shanghai factory producing the Model 3 sedan.

“We start production now under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety of our people," said Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath. "This is a great achievement and the result of huge efforts from the staff in the factory and the team securing the supply chain.”

As coronavirus cases ballooned in the U.S. over the last two weeks, all 46 assembly plants in the U.S., foreign and domestic, were shut down.

China’s bounceback comes as COVID-19 cases have declined from their peak in late January. Daily life there has returned to normal with restaurants and auto dealerships re-opened. Two of the world’s largest automakers, GM and Toyota, report that production is now back to full tilt.

GM has resumed production in its Jinqiao North Assembly Plant in China. The facility is located outside of Shanghai and produces Cadillac and Buicks for the Chinese market.

“Our plants in China have resumed production on a staggered basis, including the two plants in Wuhan,” said a GM representative. “Only three out of 13 plants in China haven’t started production yet.”

Plants like Jinqiao North Assembly outside Shangahia are applying strict cleansing guidelines and workers are required to wear face masks.

Employees in China went on break Jan. 25 for the Chinese New Year, two weeks after China recorded its first coronavirus-related death. They were then told not to return to work as the disease spread. GM began preparing for plants to reopen the week of Feb. 10.

Toyota, the world’s second-biggest automaker behind Volkswagen, has resumed normal operations in China with all regular shifts and production lines up to speed. 

Other automakers including VW, Nissan, Hyundai and Honda reopened plants in mid-February.

Volvo production in China has restarted. In Chengdu, Volvo makes the Polestar 1, the halo supercar for its Polestar electric brand. Production is scheduled for 500 units a year.

Volvo’s Polestar startup — a separate electric brand — is crucial to the company as it seeks to meet European and Chinese emissions demands while also appealing to an anticipated new generation of luxury-EV customers inspired by Tesla.

The fastback EV is scheduled to arrive in Europe this summer, and then in the U.S. with a starting price of about $65,000.

Tesla's Shanghai factory, its first outside the U.S., has been a showcase of government-business cooperation. Determined that China lead the world’s EV revolution, the government exempted the company from the national 10% sales tax. China provided extensive assistance to Tesla — including 10,000 face masks — to help it reopen the first day after the new year shutdown.

The government “will make all efforts to help key companies including Tesla return to normal production,” Xu Wei, a representative  the Shanghai municipal government, said at a briefing in February. Tesla began delivering Model 3s to customers in China just one year after it broke ground.

It is unclear when U.S. plants might start rolling again. GM said Thursday its plants are shut indefinitely. Ford and Fiat Chrysler said they could reopen their U.S. facilities as early as April 14.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.