Geo, Toyota style? Taking a page out of the General Motors Corp. play book, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. may launch a new brand - using its existing dealer network - in order to boost its standing with young car buyers. Toyota doesn't deny Japanese press reports that such a plan is in the works, admitting that it is trying to breath new life into its Genesis project - the youth marketing team that launched the Echo, Celica and MR-2 in 1999. "In anticipation of the Matrix crossover vehicle, Toyota is considering ways to take the Genesis effort to the next level, including marketing a sub group of vehicles to specific buyers," the automaker says in a statement. The Matrix, unveiled at the Detroit auto show, is due as an '02 model and is the first in Toyota's second wave of youth-oriented products. "There will be more to come," promises TMSA Chief Operating Officer James Press.

Big Three agree market to hit 16M-16.5M Less disposable income, a slowing economy and the industry's plans to cut incentives all will contribute to a decline in new vehicle sales in the U.S. in 2001. But a stronger second half should propel the market toward a still-healthy 16 million to 16.5 million units (including medium and heavy trucks), economists from the Big Three automakers say. DaimlerChrysler AG economist W. Van Bussmann says the worse-case scenario calls for U.S. sales to fall to 14.2 million units. That's assuming a negative impact of 200,000 units if the "wealth effect" proves weaker than expected, a loss of 800,000 vehicles from the slumping economy and a 1.2 million-unit fall from trend as a result of a payback from sales pulled into 2000. In the end, how strong 2001 turns out still will depend on government action, they say. "The soft landing is in the hands of the policy makers," says General Motors Corp. Chief Economist G. Mustafa Mohatarem.

GM confirms 6th Buick; Riviera name considered General Motors Corp. confirms that design work is under way on a Buick product that will imitate the division's LaCrosse concept car, first seen at the 2000 Detroit auto show. "The inspiration, the LaCrosse, will definitely be felt in Buick showrooms," says Gary Cowger, GM vice president-Manufacturing and Labor. GM insiders have referred to a product due in 2003-2004 as the Y-Job, a concept car from 1938 that served as inspiration for the LaCrosse. The production vehicle could be named Riviera (out of production since 1998), given the borrowed styling cues. Buick Marketing General Manager Roger Adams says he sees a spot for Riviera "in our future product plans." Buick is working with supplier ASC Inc. on the retracting roof technology that has been showcased on the LaCrosse and Cielo concepts. Mr. Adams says that technology could be on a product in the near future.

GM takes OTD all the way to China General Motors Corp. will take its order-to-delivery program to China "within weeks," a top company executive tells WAW. "We're getting very close to launching the gmbuypower site (in China)," reveals e-GM President Mark Hogan. The automaker currently assembles three vehicles at its Shanghai plant. All will be listed on gmbuypower, a web site that allows consumers to build, price and locate GM vehicles in inventory. At least some models will be available to consumers using OTD - a program that lets them finance and buy a vehicle online. GM's first large scale OTD program has been a success in Brazil, where it accounts for 70% of Celta sales. Mr. Hogan wouldn't forecast similar results for GM's OTD effort in China, but he appears optimistic. "You don't really know until you get it launched. But it seems there's a pretty high receptivity to do it," he says.

Smyrna ups output, preps for Altima Despite the current U.S. market slowdown, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. plans to boost output at its Smryna, TN, plant to 400,000-410,000 units in 2001, up from 380,000 last year. Production is slated to hit capacity at 500,000 units annually within three years with the addition of another vehicle. Smyrna currently is gearing up for a summer launch of the new Altima, which will be similar to the Maxima in size. Nissan officials would not say, however, whether Maxima production would shift from Japan to Smyrna. Meanwhile, executives also say the under-construction plant in Canton, MS, could build Infiniti-badged sport/utility vehicles. "It could happen," says Executive Vice President Patrick Pelata. "The plant will be up and running in mid-2003, so it would be some time after that."

Dieter's impressive mustache - 31 years in the making He's arrived in the U.S. with the unenviable task of rescuing the Chrysler unit of DaimlerChrysler AG, and he's been largely villified for the unpleasant decisions he's expected to make. But Dieter Zetsche is a charismatic guy with a warm smile and a sense of humor. When asked recently if he started growing his trademark bushy mustache as a young man wanting to look older, he responded with a grin, "Yes, and NOW it is working." Now 47, he's been nurturing the mustache, as if it were a prized evergreen shrub, since the age of 16. He also is often seen vaulting stairs two steps at a time because "two steps saves time," not because he's a fitness nut. "In fact, I use work as an excuse to avoid exercise," he says.

Kia stands toe-to-toe with the big guys Ready to shrug off its image as the provider of solely affordable transportation, Korea's Kia Motors Corp. goes upscale with its new Optima midsize sedan. Want woodgrain and leather? They got it, and just about anything else that a serious contender in the upscale midsize class (read: Camry, Accord and Taurus) have to offer. Plus they grab some nifty technology from Porsche AG and offer the upscale Tiptronic automatic trans. Thanks to its linkup with former rival Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd., Kia takes the existing Sonata platform to new heights. A day of driving in California wine country leaves most auto writers favorably impressed by fit and finish and handling. But like earlier iterations of its Japanese rivals, the Optima does not offer excessive power under the hood (149-hp 2.4L I-4 or a 170-hp 2.5L V-6). But the price seems right. Optima starts at $15,299 and wanders up to just under $22,000 fully loaded.

Former UAW chief Leonard Woodcock dies Leonard Woodcock, the former United Auto Workers leader and bargainer who later negotiated for the United States as ambassador to China, died Jan. 16 of pulmonary complications at his Ann Arbor home. He was 89. He served as UAW president from 1970 to 1977. He took the helm of the UAW after Walter Reuther died in a plane crash in 1970. That year, Mr. Woodcock led the UAW through a 67-day strike against GM before a contract was reached. Mr. Woodcock's most famous labor legacy is the union's early retirement plan, known universally as the 30-and-out clause. President Jimmy Carter tapped the labor leader as ambassador to China in 1979. After leaving the post in 1981 as Ronald Reagan entered the White House, he taught political science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Heartland buys Collins & Aikman; Losh gets new supplier post Heartland Industrial Partners LP, the Detroit-based private equity firm, purchases 25 million newly issued shares of automotive fabric supplier Collins & Aikman Corp. for $125 million. The supplier's controlling shareholders - Blackstone Capital Partners LP and Wasserstein Perella Partners LP - agree to sell another 27 million shares to Heartland, also at $5 per share. The transactions represent a $260 million investment in Collins & Aikman stock, giving Heartland 60% ownership of the company. Heartland, led by former Detroit Diesel Corp. Vice Chairman Tim Leuliette, has been aggressive in its quest to privatize some suppliers. Heartland recently acquired MascoTech Inc., Simpson Industries and Global Metal Technologies Inc. (GMTI) and combined them into a new $1.9 billion supplier. Chairman of the new company will be J. Michael Losh, who recently departed as chief financial officer at General Motors Corp.

Joining Mr. Losh at the new company will be Mr. Leuliette as president and chief executive officer and Roy Parrott, Simpson's former chief executive, as group president of business operations. Heartland acquired GMTI in January from the Pritzker Family and TMB Industries. The company makes automotive aluminum die cast components, with sales of $230 million.

ParadiGM shift drives '04 SUV At the North American International Auto Show, General Motors Corp. unveils its new ParadiGM advanced propulsion system that combines a V-6 or inline 4-cyl with a pair of electric motors and a battery pack. ParadiGM will be used first in a sport/utility vehicle (SUV) in 2004. The 3.6L V-6 version to be used in the unnamed SUV and other full-size trucks puts out 220 hp, plus another 32 hp from the electric motors. It also will be used in crossovers and passenger sedans based off of GM's forthcoming Epsilon midsize front-wheel-drive platform. At least 7,000 SUV hybrids should be produced in the first year, GM says. It estimates fuel economy will improve by about 20% initially, compared to the non-hybrid version of the SUV, to about 35 mpg.