Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hopes riding high on Chrysler's new minivan

photo

(REGINA H. BOONE/DFP)

Chrysler LLC President Tom LaSorda answers journalists' questions after the minivan launch Tuesday at the Windsor Assembly Plant. The company is pegging much of its recovery on the success of the vehicle, remade as a rolling family room.

    (REGINA H. BOONE/DFP)

    New Chrysler minivans roll down the line Tuesday at the Windsor Assembly Plant. Minivans make up 18% of the company's worldwide sales.

  • photo
Iconic vehicle has plush interiors, swivel seats, satellite TV

WINDSOR -- Nearly two weeks after losing his spot as Chrysler's top executive, Tom LaSorda returned to the assembly plant that employed his father, his grandfathers and his great-grandfather to celebrate the automaker's most important vehicle launch of the year -- the minivan.

"It's great to be back home," LaSorda said to the cheers of Windsor Assembly Plant workers.

He stood in front of scores of line workers, a mock living room behind him as a prop to emphasize the interiors of the new Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country, which have swiveling second-row seats, a rear table and video screens that can play satellite television.

Minivans make up 18% of Chrysler's global sales, and the automaker says it reinvested more than $1.4 billion in the vehicle. The Windsor plant got $500 million for a paint shop and improved manufacturing capabilities.

"We've built 11 million, and let's build 11 million more," LaSorda told line workers. "We've put a lot of money behind it. We're betting on this workhorse who's always been there for us and will continue to be there for us."

Now as the No. 2 executive at Chrysler, LaSorda said he has worked with new Chief Executive Bob Nardelli to put together a leadership plan to be unveiled to the senior staff this month.

"He and I have teamed up," LaSorda told journalists after the celebration. "We've got our plan laid out. We'll be communicating it to the entire leadership team by the end of the month. It's all systems go."

LaSorda, who had been CEO since 2005, declined to elaborate on the plan other than to say, "It's going to be great."

Nardelli, who was last CEO of Home Depot, has said publicly several times that he supports the current turnaround plan, unveiled by LaSorda earlier this year, that is supposed to make Chrysler profitable again by next year.

The plan includes cutting 13,000 jobs over three years, closing the Delaware assembly plant and investing in more fuel-efficient engines.

Chrysler lost $680 million last year and nearly $2 billion in the first three months of this year. Cerberus completed its deal with DaimlerChrysler AG to acquire 80.1% of the Auburn Hills automaker on Aug. 3.

LaSorda emphasized that the turnaround plan is being implemented. Asked if the recovery plan would go deeper, LaSorda responded: "I never can say 'never' on what might happen in the future. ... The economy is pretty tough."

LaSorda noted that Chrysler had not planned for the recent troubles in the credit market that are disrupting some loans and mortgages.

"Whether or not we speed things up, that's always part of our nature," LaSorda said. "How much further we need to go? We think we've got a plan, and we'll wait and see what's going on in the economy."

Cerberus officials have expressed confidence in the plan and in Chrysler's future vehicle lineup, including the new minivan.

LaSorda was optimistic about the minivan market Tuesday, saying he thinks it will hold steady at 1 million vehicle sales a year.

Windsor is expected to churn out 1,426 minivans each day. The St. Louis minivan plant is expected to begin production in September.

Prior to the celebration at the Chrysler plant, Nardelli, who did not attend the event, and LaSorda met with Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove and CAW Local 444 President Ken Lewenza for a little over an hour in Windsor.

"I was provided the confidence on your behalf this morning that Nardelli and LaSorda are a team that is inseparable as we turn the corner in making Chrysler Corp. the company it once was," Lewenza told workers.

Nardelli gave a commitment to return Chrysler to its iconic status, Hargrove later told journalists, noting that the CEO reaffirmed the automaker's commitments on promised investments and plant security.

"He said all of the things that we would have anticipated a new CEO saying," Hargrove said. "The jury is still out.

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