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Chrysler plans for the future

Chrysler head Jim Press discusses near-term and future strategies.

Jim Press
Jim Press speaks at a journalists' dinner. CNET

At the Western Automotive Journalists' dinner this week, Jim Press, President of Chrysler, told me exactly what I wanted to hear. When I asked how he plans on differentiating the Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep brands, he put it this way: Jeep will remain an iconic off-roader, with no soft-roaders spoiling the brand; Dodge will be the performance brand, but will also be a volume play; and Chrysler focuses on luxury, competing with brands like Acura. Maybe this type of brand differentiation just fits conventional wisdom, but it seems like a smart plan to me. Yet, in speaking more generally about the cars he wants the Chrysler corporation to produce, Press said that they should appeal to enthusiasts, and that he wasn't interested in making an appliance. Companies such as BMW have done a good job with that strategy, but Toyota has risen to the top based on its decidedly non-visceral Camry. This point was particularly interesting based on the fact that Press headed Toyota Motors North America before coming over to Chrysler.

The dinner was a great opportunity to hear from a top player in the automotive industry, and more importantly, to get an idea of what's going to happen at Chrysler. Press spent a while talking about how American automakers have been yearning for the past, and developing their strategies based on how things used to be. The paradigm of Detroit became the more cars you sell, the more money you lose. "For every four Crossfires we sold," Press said, "we had to lay off one employee." At Chrysler, he is working on cutting production, something that has become surprisingly difficult to do amongst American automakers, as production cuts entail renegotiating supplier and union contracts. But Chrysler currently has greater flexibility, as it is a private corporation, so is not beholden to quarterly reports.

As for Chrysler's product plans, Press said the company will launch seven new vehicles in 2010, a year that he sees as a recovery period for the industry. Chrysler is developing a new fuel-efficient engine dubbed Phoenix, and Press enticingly said that the company is much closer to producing an electric car than most people realize. Most importantly, he said that Chrysler is working towards the electrification of the automobile. It seems most major automakers recognize that electric cars are the future, and each are developing strategies to lead this market.