General Motors Corp. has tapped a loyal supplier, roof systems specialist ASC Inc., to help launch the Chevrolet SSR sporty retro roadster pickup it will begin building in 2002.

As an assembly site, GM chooses the Lansing, MI, Craft Centre, which currently assembles only one vehicle, the Cadillac Eldorado. It goes out of production no later than 2003.

ASC is providing engineering assistance in preparing the vehicle for production and also could oversee assembly.

The Southgate, MI, supplier already has a lot of experience at the Craft Centre. Its Genasys 50-50 joint venture with GM produced the Chevrolet Cavalier/Pontiac Sunfire convertibles and managed the EV-1 electric vehicle production from 1995 to 1999.

The deal is a coup for ASC. Some suppliers, including Magna International Inc., are attempting to become contract assemblers of low-volume niche vehicles, such as the SSR, for automakers. ASC also is working on prototypes of the next-generation Dodge Viper for DaimlerChrysler AG.

The SSR pickup for GM may give ASC an inside track for additional niche vehicle projects. Sources say GM is considering building up to three more so-called “halo” vehicles for its brands at the Craft Centre.

The SSR, an acronym for Super Sport Roadster, was introduced at the 2000 Detroit auto show and has been a hit on the auto show circuit.

The SSR is not on the same platform as GM's new midsize sport/utility vehicles (SUVs), which arrive in mid 2001 as '02 models. But the body-on-frame SSR and the new SUVs do have some common underpinnings, sources say.

ASC has a Specialty Vehicles division that has brought vehicles to market in as little as nine months. A source within GM says ASC's quickness is key.

“We had to get going right away on this,” the insider says.

In this tight engineering market, GM also has allowed ASC to recruit talent for the job by telling prospective hires about the SSR project.

Daimler ‘Crisis’ Snags Suppliers, Plants, Lawyers

As the Presidential election tale of 2000 winds to a close, news junkies are able to find a quick replacement in the foibles playing out at DaimlerChrysler Corp.

The first salvo after Dieter Zetsche makes his late-November romp to the top spot at the Chrysler Group comes from former Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca's old pal Kirk Kerkorian, the company's third-largest shareholder, who files an $8 billion lawsuit alleging fraud by DaimlerChrysler AG Chairman Juergen Schrempp and other senior executives for terming what turned out to be a takeover as a merger.

In a twist of irony, Deutsche Bank AG criticizes the lawsuit as damaging share price, which is exactly what Mr. Kerkorian's saying the merger did to his investment.

That's followed closely by the idling of seven of Chrysler's 12 North American plants to take 50,000 units out of previously forecast December production. Amid the turmoil, DC stock, which peaked at $108 in January 1999, drops below $40 in mid-December.

To keep the plot thickening, Tom Sidlik, executive vice president of procurement and supply, is tapped to head to Korea as the DaimlerChrysler AG representative at Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd.

It is Mr. Sidlik who leads a meeting with suppliers and demands they cut costs by 5% effective Jan. 1, 2001. An added 10% savings is to be wrung out by Jan. 1, 2003. On $40 billion spent on parts annually, it adds up to almost $6 billion in cuts.

The move is driven by a drop in Chrysler Group earnings (expected to hit a minus $1.5 billion for second-half 2000) and ominous industry trends that include high incentives, low prices and a softening market, Mr. Sidlik says.

Other news tidbits to whet DC gazers' appetites:

  • Reports out of Germany are the carmaker will be reorganized into four divisions: luxury (Mercedes-Benz), compact and small cars (Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Smart), a division of sport/utility vehicle, pickups and minivans (Dodge, Jeep, Mercedes, Mitsubishi) and commercial vehicles.

  • DaimlerChrysler AG is expected to step up its cooperation with Mitsubishi Motors Corp., amid talk the next-generation Neon small car could be built by Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd.

Toyota Undeterred By ‘Correction’

With four new models arriving in showrooms, it's no wonder that Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. has declared 2000 as the “year of the truck and SUV.”

Recently in Dearborn, MI, in the shadow of Ford Motor Co.'s world headquarters, Toyota previewed for journalists a raft of its latest products aimed squarely at a market dominated by Ford, General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler Corp.

In '01, Toyota plans to sell 60,000 Sequoia fullsize sport/utility vehicles, 70,000 Highlander midsize crossover utility vehicles (akin to the Lexus RX 300), 75,000 newly redesigned RAV4 compact SUVs and 150,000 Tacoma small pickups. Of the Tacoma mix, TMSA projects 45,000 will be 4-door Double Cabs and 4,000 will be 190-hp S-Runner sport trucks.

This growth should help Toyota boost its overall U.S. market share from 7.6% to 8.2%, says Alan DeCarr, TMSA vice president-sales.

Mr. DeCarr says he is not concerned that his company is rolling out new SUVs as that market is nearing saturation and as overall vehicle sales appear to be slowing.

“We see a bit of a correction, but nothing major,” he says.

Toyota says it wants trucks to account for more than a 40% share of the brand's North American sales, but remain less than 50%.

Mr. DeCarr hints that additional capacity could be necessary at the new Princeton, IN, plant that produces the Sequoia and the Tundra pickup.

GM Website Will List Competitors, Too

General Motors Corp. says it will launch an online sales program for Saturn in the U.S. as early as 2001 and create an “all makes, all models” Website that would include information on competitive vehicles.

The automaker discusses plans for more Internet sales opportunities at a press conference in Detroit, reviewing early returns of Opel Celta online sales in Brazil. With the Celta's Web success, GM is moving quickly on plans for the U.S. The industry-wide Website could be finalized by the “first half of next year, if not sooner,” says e-GM President Mark Hogan.

The object is not to sell competitors' vehicles, but to secure another presence for GM on the Internet, Mr. Hogan says. GM data shows that two out of every three online automotive consumers won't go to an automaker's Website, such as GM's, because they' don't view it as objective.

GM says it could win over some consumers who are using their Website to shop other brands. “At least we're capturing their eyeballs,” Mr. Hogan says.

The Website wouldn't be an order-to-delivery system. That's the direction the Saturn site ultimately would take. Saturn likely will be the first GM division in the U.S. to offer an online program similar to the Opel Celta in Brazil.


Battle of the Inches At Ford and Toyota

It would be silly if they weren't serious, but with auto sales trending downward and other calamitous events to think about, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. are waging a mini-war over a matter of inches — Who has the most cargo area and ground clearance in its full-size SUVs? Ford and Toyota — paradoxically — reportedly are considering some partnerships. Ford started the spat after Toyota hit the market with its new Sequoia pitted directly against Expedition. Toyota's ads claim Sequoia has 128.1 cu. ft. (3,627L), making it much roomier than Expedition's 110.7 cu ft. (3,134L). Ford says Sequoia's truly usable cargo space is smaller: 107.0 cu. ft. (3,030L). Ford charges that Toyota fudged by using outdated Society of Automotive Engineers standards rather than the newer SAE J1100 formula promulgated three years ago. Toyota says bull — that it conforms to the newer standards. How does Toyota get the bigger number? By removing Sequoia's middle seats. Ford says that ain't fair because the seats are bolted down and require special tools and a mechanic's touch to remove them while Expedition's seats are easily removable. Toyota says it takes less than five minutes to pull out the seats, and that in any case SAE J1100 makes no reference to the rear seats at all. Undeterred, Ford says that in “apples to apples” comparisons, Sequoia's middle seats should be considered as “permanent” fixtures, and thus that space shouldn't be included in determining cargo volume. There's also disagreement over which SUV has the most ground clearance, an important off-road consideration. WAW's recommendation: Put a tape rule in every glove box.