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Published: Wednesday, 1/12/2011

UAW Local 12 leader dazzled by new Chrysler product line

DETROIT -- Before he spent the last two decades negotiating labor deals and quietly doing economic development work for metro Toledo, Bruce Baumhower spent more than 20 years in the Toledo Jeep plant.

Tuesday, the former line worker whose United Auto Workers Local 12 members helped Chrysler Group LLC emerge from bankruptcy in 2009 got his first look at what their sacrifices and those of other autoworkers have purchased for Chrysler, as he attended the media previews of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

There, Chrysler is rolling out a product lineup vastly improved from a year ago, and the old line worker knew right where to look to spot the upgrades.

"Look at that. Look how well that's fit together. That's just amazing fit and finish," the 56-year-old Local 12 President said, running his index finger across the narrow seam between two body panels on a white Wrangler Sahara.

Dealing with an automaker day to day on behalf of several thousand members can cause a person to lose perspective on the products, he said. That was part of the reason, he said, that he hadn't been to the Detroit auto show in more than a decade. But in one vehicle after another Tuesday, Mr. Baumhower's reaction was the same.

"Wow. Just wow," he said, sitting in the leather driver's seat of a new Dodge Charger. "My brother used to have one of these, back in the early 1970s. This is just amazing. What a difference."

Chrysler's lightning-fast product overhaul -- 16 vehicles were significantly overhauled over the past 18 months -- has received needed praise from the automotive press and others this week in Detroit, especially for their vastly improved interiors. The automaker has replaced hard plastic surfaces with softer materials, improved styling and functionality, and even banished what chief designer Ralph Gilles called "rat gray."

Tuesday afternoon, Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Alan Mulally spent the better part of 10 minutes studying the interior of the new Chrysler 300 sedan, a luxury vehicle that will compete with his own Lincoln MKS.

Mr. Baumhower, who has owned a series of Chrysler cars and SUVs during his career, said the new interiors and exterior styling will attract and keep potential buyers -- if they are willing to give Chrysler another chance.

If they do, he predicted, Chrysler's latest resurgence will know no limit.

"You know, two years ago we worried that Chrysler wouldn't survive, and last year we worried that Chrysler couldn't compete."

"But looking at this product, I think pretty soon we could dominate a couple segments."

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: lvellequette@theblade.com or at 419-724-6091.

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