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Published: Thursday, 8/6/2009

GM board wants vehicles brought to market faster

FROM THE BLADE'S NEWS SERVICES

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - At its first meeting, the board overseeing the new General Motors Co. ordered management to bring some new vehicles to market faster, a sign that the new 13-member board will play a far larger role than the old one.

That news came from GM Chairman Edward Whitacre, Jr., as reporters were told at an industry conference in northern Michigan that Toyota Motor Corp. plans to create more "passion" for a brand known for reliability with a new sports car and models appealing to young drivers.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda said at the conference in Traverse City, Mich., that his company is developing an "affordable" sports car, to be produced within two years.

GM's Mr. Whitacre would not identify which vehicles were pulled ahead, but said the board of the government-controlled company emphasized fuel efficiency as well as other areas.

"I'll tell you there were some suggestions made," said Mr.

Whitacre, former CEO of telecommunications giant AT&T Corp. "There were some changes made. This board's going to be very active. We're charged with doing well for the stockholders."

GM, which emerged from bankruptcy protection July 10, can become profitable sooner than most people think, he said, although he wouldn't give a time frame.

The company is not yet profitable despite shedding debts and burdensome contracts in bankruptcy court, he said.

GM, in a viability plan filed with the U.S. government in April, predicted its U.S. market share would be 19.5 percent this year, 18.9 percent next year, and 18.6 percent in 2011. It ended July with an 18.9 percent share. It controlled more than 50 percent in the 1950s.

Mr. Whitacre said he is confident the company can maintain those numbers and even grow, despite selling or scrapping Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab. It continues to sell Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac brands.

Toyota, hoping to rebound from its worst U.S. slump, will remain a brand U.S. consumers associate with quality and value, said Jim Lentz, the firm's U.S. sales chief. He told reporters at the Michigan conference that, with the sports car, the automaker will be known for "passion, styling, electronics; it's also going to be fun to drive." No details were given about the sports car.

U.S. sales for Toyota, the world's largest automaker, fell 34 percent through July after a 15 percent drop last year as the industry struggled with its worst decline in three decades.

Mr. Toyoda, in his first U.S. speech since becoming president of the world's largest carmaker, said the company is close to a decision to keep or shut a former joint-venture plant in California abandoned by 25-year partner GM.

The Fremont, Calif., plant's fate is in Toyota's hands after GM in June decided not to continue the venture as the U.S. automaker reorganized in bankruptcy.



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