A flurry of activity has been underway at Chrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills, MI, after the automaker’s affable former leader, Dieter Zetsche, packed his boxes earlier than anticipated to take the helm of Mercedes-Benz on September 1. Zetsche decided it would be best for him to take sole control of the ailing German luxury car maker as soon as possible, lest any additional problems develop as disgruntled former MB boss Eckhard Cordes remained at the helm. While Zetsche still will not take full control of parent DaimlerChrysler until January 1, the move to Stuttgart hastened the reassignment of Tom LaSorda to lead Chrysler. Along with LaSorda’s fast-track shuffle, Eric Ridenour assumed his duties as Chrysler’s Chief Operating Officer and Frank Klegon moved up a few floors to the post of product development czar.
Shortly before Zetsche announced he would accelerate his moving plans, LaSorda described the foundation for his tenure. He plans to stay the course when it comes to Chrysler’s future product plans, including the introduction of 10 new products in 2006, a new record for the automaker. The product transformation that began in 2005 will progress with the introduction of all-new C-Segment vehicles, replacing the current Neon. Sources inside the company tell AD&P that in addition to the upcoming Dodge Caliber, two Jeep variants will be added to Chrysler’s small-vehicle lineup, with the new Jeeps being based on the Compass and Freedom concepts that debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Also on tap are new SUVs and crossovers; while the next-generation midsize passenger-cars will arrive in late-2006/early-2007. The new product push will help to reduce the average age of Chrysler’s product line to less than 2 years, a significant reduction from the current 3.8-year level.
LaSorda also hinted Chrysler may make changes to its powertrain plan if gasoline prices continue to climb. He said the automaker is looking at possibly reducing horsepower output in future engines to boost fuel efficiency. “We have asked our engineering teams to look at how can I get fuel economy that doesn’t cost me. That’s the stuff we’re studying,” he said. This thought process seems a bit of a diversion from Chrysler’s recent practices, which have included development of the high-powered HEMI engine, along with a range of new high-performance SRT products. LaSorda explained Chrysler is just erring on the side of caution, based on the recent run-up in oil prices.
On the manufacturing side—an area where LaSorda has considerable expertise—look for Chrysler to pass on constructing new plants (with the current activity at the Toledo North Assembly Plant being the exception to the rule). Instead, the focus will be on improving the efficiency of existing factories via shift additions. LaSorda said plans are in place to add a second-shift at Chrysler’s Belvidere, IL, assembly plant when C-Segment vehicle production gets underway in a few months, with hopes to add a third-shift when the Jeep variants are added. Also, plans are in place to return a third-shift to the Sterling Heights (MI) assembly plant when replacements for the aging Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Stratus sedans begin running down the line at the end of 2006. His goal is to boost Chrysler’s capacity utilization from its current near 90% level with the shift additions.—KMK