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Auto Execs Answer the Questions - Autoblog Interview


We told Autoblog readers that we had a few questions for auto executives at the North American International Auto Show that we would be asking. We did get to ask most of our questions, but even better, we got to ask a bunch of questions that you, our readers had.

We didn't get to all of them, but we are going to do our best via follow-up email, as well as the upcoming Washington DC and Chicago auto shows. Stay tuned for another column where we tackle even more of your questions. This is just Part One.


Q: Can we get a diesel Jeep Wrangler?
A: Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said a diesel is very desirable in the Wrangler and a distinct possibility. There is demand for it. Other Chrysler execs even told Autoblog there is a business case trying to be made. Stay tuned.

Q: How about a Focus SVT?
A: You got it. Except it's called the Focus ST, like in Europe. Ford decided it should have one nomenclature worldwide.

Q: Ford Global rear-drive platform for a Lincoln luxury car?
A: Chief marketer James Fairly says he doesn't believe that Lincoln really needs an up-market luxury car to thrive. He says the heart of the luxury market going forward is $30,000-$50,000. More important than an up-market rear-wheel-drive sports car is the entry level Lincoln being developed off the Focus platform. That will be pieced under the new MKZ, which will have a design distinct from the next Fusion.

Q: How about a B car from Subaru?
A: Subaru chief Tom Doll says that it would be nice to have, but he notes that Subaru is going to tackle fuel economy with innovative engine technology and design when the new Impreza arrives, scoring around 35 mpg even with the company's all-wheel-drive system.

Q: Any chance mid-sized trucks will stage a comeback to cope with higher fuel economy needs?
A: Not much. Certainly not body-on-frame mid-sized trucks. The Ford Ranger is going away. The Dodge Dakota is going away, according to Chrysler's Marchionne. To compensate, Jeep will have a Wrangler with a flat-bed. And here is an idea we heard kicked around – a new Explorer Sport Trac built off the new Explorer. If it comes to pass, look for the bed design to be a bit more utilitarian than the old one. And Ford's Farley says the company is looking at derivatives of the Transit Connect. Maybe even one that has an open bed.

Q: Why no American muscle cars in Europe except through the gray market?
A: GM President Mark Reuss says the company has a lot of priorities, but that isn't one of them. He thinks the market is too small to make the investment. Ditto when we asked Ford's Jim Farley.

Q: Why no six-speed transmission in Subarus?
A: Subaru marketing chief Tim Mahoney says that the company has not seen a need for the investment yet. But Subaru is always very cagey. We'd be shocked if it didn't turn up in the new Impreza. It's hard to imagine they can get the 35 mpg in the Impreza they say is coming without it.

Q: Can we get a hatchback Civic?
A: Not from what we could tell. Honda seems content to handle its hatchback demand with the Fit.

Q: [We finally caught up with Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn. He can be notoriously tough for a U.S. journalist to access. But we button-holed him at the Audi stand without a PR representative] Why is it so important to remind us all the time about this sales goal of one million VWs and Audis in the U.S. by 2018. Why not focus on improving quality, which has been going in the wrong direction the last two years. And this goal of being number-one in the world? Have you learned anything from watching GM and Toyota?
A: Winterkorn: "We have four goals – To sell 10 million vehicles a year by 2018. Earn more than 8%. Have the best team in the industry. Be #1 in quality." So, yes. Leading in quality is the last of four goals. The VW CEO is certainly dug in, and convinced this constant reminder of the sales goals, in virtually every speech, is the right way to go. Of course, even with his recent contract extension, he will be handing off the meeting of that goal to the next CEO to complete.

Q: How about that "Joy" campaign at BMW?
A: BMW U.S. chief Jim O'Donnell told us the Joy campaign is going to become "less visible" very soon.

Q: "When are we going to see an AWD Fiesta or Focus to back up Ford's recent US Rally push? Also, can we get a 3-door Fiesta or a Mustang-based wagon?"
A: Not a big market for three-door Fiesta, says Ford's Jim Farley. No shot for Mustang wagon. Ford execs were cagier about AWD for Fiesta or Focus, though Focus would be the more likely to eventually have it as an option.

Q: For Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne: "How in the world are you going to avoid the mistakes that have plagued Chrysler mergers and major-stake adventures of the past? Moreover, what concrete steps have you taken, and will continue to take to ensure higher quality vehicles with better design that are competitive with a market that is constantly evolving?"
A: Marchionne says that they are investing big in quality improvements. As one of the Autobloggers who has driven all the recently redone products, I can tell you that Charger, Compass, Patriot, Challenger and to some degree the Chrysler 200 have been upgraded by leaps and bounds. The Town & Country is much better. And the Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango are both very good, good enough to be finalists for North American truck of the Year. Marchionne says Chysler won't get traction with doubters until third-party validation from Consumer Reports and J.D. Power has a chance to materialize. That takes time.

Q: For GM CEO Daniel Ackerson: Where's my money?
A: We didn't have a chance to ask Akerson directly. But I did see him at the GM Holiday party before I wrote the previous column. I might extrapolate from our chat about GM's IPO that had you bought some GM stock when it was issued in November, you would be making money now. Ironically enough, Akerson, a self-described hardcore Republican, probably didn't favor the bailout before he was on GM's board. He is very anxious to get rid of the government as a shareholder. But we suspect talking to GM execs that it has more to do with wanting the freedom to pay themselves much more in salary and bonuses than the government will allow at present than it does with how car buyers feel. So far, it doesn't look like consumers care one way or the other as GM sales and market share are going up.

Q: Why no VW Tiguan TDO in the U.S.
A: Volkswagen execs tell us that the Tiguan is already suffering for being too expensive relative to the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. The diesel would add another $3,000 up-charge making it truly out of whack pricing-wise. Only VW nuts who were still buying Eurovans at the end would be tempted. And there were about 100 of those a year.

Q: For GM: When can we expect "full" product lines for Buick and Caddy?
A: Cadillac won't have new product until half way through 2012... one replacement for the Deville and STS called the XTS, plus an entry level car below the CTS called the ATS. Possible roadster after that by mid-decade. The CTS and SRX on top of that, plus hybrid versions and the Escalade. That's it for Caddy. On the Buick side, new Verano, Regal, LaCrosse and Enclave and Lucerne. Jeeez. How many Buicks do you want? The crossovers are going to be GMCs, which are sold in the same showroom.

Q: Why can't I buy a fuel efficient van with a manual transmission that is tall enough to put a motorcycle into?
A: Because you don't live in Turkey. Nobody wants a manual tranny van in the U.S. any more except you, seven auto journalists and Cheech and Chong.

Q: To Ford: The supposed reasoning behind alphanumeric "names" is to put more emphasis on the brand. Wouldn't it make sense to first have a well-defined brand strategy for Lincoln, other than re-badging Fords? How about some unique products? And why are you sticking with the MK- names.
A: From Ford's Jim Farley. The MKS and MKT are not rebadged Fords. And the MKZ replacement will have a unique design set apart from the Ford Fusion. The Focus-based Lincoln will also have a unique design. The alpha-mumerics, like them or not, are staying. Can't keep switching name strategies. Hopefully, the new Lincoln campaign launched a few months ago will be effective and we will stay with the positioning.

Q: To Audi: Why the long lag between base and S model and RS? BMW and Mercedes-Benz release their M and AMG variants almost concurrently with the base models.
A: Really? In the U.S., M and AMG models tend to come out later as well. The 1 Series M Coupe is just coming out in a few months. and was just shown at the NAIAS. In any case, Audi staggers the releases in order to keep the line fresh through the cycle. They deem it smart marketing and product management to have the performance and cabrio versions in the middle of the product cycle. Plus, if they released all the variants at once, the showrooms couldn't cope.

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