The Chrysler Hemi C convertible, the rear-drive concept with a Hemi engine unveiled in January, would be a niche vehicle, says James Holden, president of DaimlerChrysler Corp.

"Convertibles of that size are still a relative niche market," says Mr. Holden of the concept he hinted broadly would go into production.

"The Hemi is doable. We know how to do that. We know what the components are. We have a lot of advantages because we have rear-wheel-drive capability with our partners Mercedes, so the components are on the shelf," Mr. Holden says in an interview with Wards.

In keeping with company policy, he would not confirm production of future product. But he flashes a picture of the Hemi during an Aug. 9 speech to thousands of executives at the U-M Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City. "It's indicative of a direction we might consider," he says, playing on the company's reputation for putting concepts on the road.

In an interview later, Mr. Holden says the company has received "unprecedented cards and letters for the car, more than anything I remember recently." The response is similar to the demand to build the Viper in 1989 and more than for the Pronto concept that gave way to the PT Cruiser, he says.

The Viper went into production in 1992. Although Holden says there was no business case for making it, it has proven invaluable in defining the Dodge brand. Prowler did the same for Plymouth.

Mr. Holden would not confirm the Hemi C will join the next generation of large sedans, which Ward's has reported will switch to rear-drive in '04. All he will say is he is "exploring alternatives" and rear drive is a possibility for the successor platform to the front-drive LH family that includes the Chrysler LHS, Concorde, 300M and Dodge Intrepid.

The next-generation large-car platform is codenamed LX - the same name given the rear-drive version of the original LH large-car platform. LX was dropped and Chrysler debuted a front-drive-only family in 1993.

Ward's has reported the resurrection of LX for '04 will also include the rear-drive Dodge Charger concept shown in 1999.

LX also is the pilot for FastCar, a pilot program to create a single database linking everything from design to manufacturing to marketing to retail in a corporate bid to trim cost and product development time.

The FastCar program announced by Mr. Holden should cut development time by 20%, or an average of six months, starting with the '04 large car platform. It will be passed on to the Jeep, truck, small-car and minivan platforms. It will be developed in Auburn Hills and made available to Mercedes. It will be rolled out quickly with the help of partners Dassault Systems supplying the CATIA system software, and i2 Technologies will provide the business integration software.

FastCar takes DCC's platform approach and extended enterprise with its suppliers and unifies them through an information channel accessible to all for faster product development. The company spent three years overhauling its data systems in preparation. It eliminates the scenario where a change is made to the fit of a pillar, for example, but the supplier of the door trim doesn't find out until six months later and the realization puts the company in crisis mode to get a last-minute and costly fix that could include changing dies and scrapping tooling. Under FastCar, the change goes into the system for everyone's immediate access. It should reduce everything from development time to the number of prototypes, crash tests and general confusion.

"If you only make the change once, it's huge savings," says Mr. Holden. He likened it to addressing traffic flow problems when an eight-lane highway is intersected by mud roads.

"We will be able to reinvent the way we do business internally."