PT's success is rubbing off Taking charge of an auto division just when it introduces a "dropdead hit" new model doesn't happen to every general manager.

Thomas R. Marinelli is the lucky one. He became vice president and general manager of Chrysler/Jeep Division in April, just as the Chrysler PT Cruiser shot out of the chute. He succeeded long-time Chrysler-Plymouth general manager, Martin S. Levine.

"The Cruiser is the biggest phenomenon world-wide since the Mustang came out in 1964," boasts Mr. Marinelli. "We are finding that Cruiser success rubs off across the Chrysler/Jeep lineup and draws to our dealerships an incredible flow of first-time buyers and shoppers."

Chrysler/Jeep is a division in flux as it builds its last Plymouth cars early in 2001, a Neon, and adds to its sport-utility offerings with the new Jeep Liberty. Also coming is an updated Sebring convertible.

Then there are the fourth-generation Chrysler (formerly Plymouth) Voyager and Town & Country minivans that rolled out last fall.

"Plymouth's phase-out has not been a big disruption," says Mr. Marinelli, 48, a 25-year Chrysler Corp. sales-staff veteran who started his career as an administration trainee in the Boston zone.

"We got some letters from disappointed Plymouth owners," he says. "But the dealers have not found it a big problem. Chrysler is a big marquee brand to put on Voyager and Prowler in place of Plymouth."

The PT Cruiser added nearly 70,000 incremental sales to the Chrysler brand total through October as it instantly became the company's top-selling car, surpassing Dodge Intrepid. Chrysler brand sales rose 22.3% from the January-October period of 1999.

The new Sebring convertible goes into production in January at Chrysler's Sterling Heights, MI, plant, and remains the top-selling ragtop built in the U.S. Between 40,000 and 45,000 Sebring convertibles are sold a year, and Mr. Marinelli expects a 10% growth for the '01 model.

DaimlerChrysler forecasts that the minivan market will remain at the one million sales level in 2001, despite consensus forecasts of an overall new-vehicle decline of about 5% in 2001.

Intense competition from the likes of Honda Odyssey, Ford Windstar and Toyota Sienna induced DC to restore minivan incentives on '00 and '01 models as of Nov. 1.

Mr. Marinelli says about 80% of the 2,972 Chrysler/Jeep dealers have qualified for the new Five Star award program despite its "rigorous" initial requirements and re-testing demands.

"The dealer council has supported Five Star all along, in seeking to take the retail purchasing experience to a higher level," declares Mr. Marinelli. "It's motivating dealers to upgrade or put up new buildings, like Bob Feeny Chrysler-Dodge in Midland, MI."

After holding a series of field sales postings across the U.S., Mr. Marinelli likes to say he's "tuned in" to Chrysler/Jeep dealers, their problems and their goals.

"We ask our dealers what they think of some competitive initiatives and pride ourselves on listening and acting as a team," he declares. "The dealers dislike the Ford Blue Oval special bonus, or the zero-down/zero-interest/zero-monthly-payment idea which the competition (Oldsmobile and Mitsubishi) introduced in October or any factory-ownership initiatives,

"So we respected their wishes. The Chrysler/Jeep dealers are too important to us."