DETROIT – Mark Reuss, president of North American operations at General Motors Co., says the auto maker made strides last year in revamping the image of its brands but admits much ground remains to be covered to catch its key rivals.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Reuss tells Ward’s during an interview at the North American International Auto Show.

“There’s been some good headway with Joel coming in,” he says, referring to new marking-chief Joel Ewanick, who GM hired away from Hyundai Motor America Inc. six months ago to polish its image post-bankruptcy.

“But you don’t make an ad or two and call it a day,” Reuss says. “You’ve got to produce results. We did not go bankrupt in a year. We have our work cut out for us, and we’re realistic about that.”

GM retained its U.S. sales crown last year, delivering 2.2 million vehicles for a 7.2% gain, according to Ward’s data. Ford Motor Co. jumped 19.5% to 1.9 million, and Toyota Motor Corp. deliveries fell 0.4% to 1.8 million.

At the same time, GM’s share of the U.S. market dropped to 19.1% from 19.8%, while Ford’s widened to 16.5% from 15.3%. Toyota, bruised by its quality problems, shrunk to 14.9% from 13.3%.

Last week, influential Consumer Reports magazine said Ford and Toyota now are in a “dead heat” for tops in consumer perception, with the Dearborn auto maker closing a substantial gap between the two in 2010. Honda Motor Co. Ltd. took third place.

GM’s volume Chevrolet brand came in fourth, and Cadillac, the auto maker’s luxury brand, also made the top 10, according to the magazine.

GM’s greatest fear would be seeing itself locked out of the Ford-Toyota discussion, especially since it has some key new entries in the market and competes alongside its rivals in terms of quality and reliability.

Reuss says customer retention, both from the brands GM sold or wound down during bankruptcy and those divisions retained, will occupy much of the auto maker’s efforts to improve its reputation and shore up market share in its most profitable region.

“So you are going to see some really creative things as we go to market that changes the customer perception, but also the reality of how people are treated when they go into our dealership from a service and sales standpoint,” he says.

Reuss says details of efforts may not make headlines, because “we’re not writing press releases about it. We’re just doing it.”

The executive also says GM will tout its technical leadership in the New Year, using the Chevy Volt extended-range electric vehicle as a springboard. The vehicle won North American Car of the Year at the show Monday.

“But I don’t want to do things that are competitive anymore,” Reuss adds. “I don’t want to do things that are competitive in product, that are competitive in service. I don’t want our dealership looking average. I don’t want any of that stuff.

“We’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it the best or we’re not going to do it.”

Reuss cites the access dealer-service technicians now have to the engineers who developed the car. Instead of swimming against the GM bureaucracy with their service problem, they now can pick up the phone and call an engineer for the solution.

“That was never a good link,” Reuss says. “Why it was that way in the past, I don’t know. But it’s not that way anymore. Now our service technicians have a direct link right into the heart of the company that develops the car.”

GM also will tweak its dealer footprint in regions such as California, where the auto maker may have terminated too many distribution agreements. Reuss cites that as one reason GM lost market share in 2010.

“We tended to focus our sales on places where we always did well,” he says. “That is a really bad play. So we have got to do things differently in places where we are not strong.”

Reuss specifically points to the Volt, whose initial rollout includes regions in which the auto maker historically has not competed well.

“We could have sold all of (the initial Volts) in the Heartland,” he says. “That doesn’t do any good on a perception basis, nor does it make a hell of lot of sense.”

jamend@wardsauto.com