General Motors on Tuesday celebrated the start of production of the Hummer H3 at its Struandale assembly plant in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

"The occasion represents an important step in the global expansion of Hummer by providing increased capacity and a global version of the H3 for markets outside North America," GM said in a statement.

Edward Welburn, GM's vice president of global design added "Hummer's iconic design and unparalleled off-road performance are already recognised around the world. A global version and international assembly of the H3 are the next logical step to expand globally."

Until recently, Hummer had primarily focused its attention on establishing a strong presence in North America. GM acquired the brand in late 1999 and since then it has grown from a brand selling roughly 1,000 vehicles per year in 2000 to more than 60,000 in 2005. Sales nearly doubled globally in 2005, paced by the launch of the midsize H3. While much of this growth was in the United States, there also was significant expansion in more countries around the globe.

H3s built in South Africa will be exported to Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Production of a right-hand drive version will begin in the second quarter of 2007 for export to Europe and Asia as well as for local sale in South Africa.

The South African-built H3 has a new 242 horsepower (180 KW) Vortec inline five-cylinder engine, choice of manual or automatic transmissions, and a full-time four-wheel-drive system. A diesel is expected later.

GM announced the $US100m investment in its South African operations last year. Robert Socia, president and managing director of GM South Africa described the project as, "one of the most important milestones in the history of GM in South Africa."

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