- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

It's hard not to root for Kurt Ritter.

Mr. Ritter is general manager of Chevrolet and a car guy through to the marrow. His 29-year career at the bow-tie division includes a couple decades in field marketing and sales positions and a stint as full-size-pickup brand manager. So he knows something about where Chevy's been and where it's going. And when he talks about it, there's a passion for the brand and its long heritage that comes through.

"If you go back in time to when Chevy was a great car brand, it had pride, identity, it had performance," he said. "It captured a spirit. We have to recapture that.

"I understand [the] criticism [Chevy gets today]," he adds. "It isn't anything that offends me. It is something that inspires me, quite frankly. To know what we were good at, what we were great at, we can also reinvent and come back with."

Mr. Ritter's task is a tough one. Chevrolet, which made its mark as the heartbeat of America, has watched its customer base steadily migrate to foreign brands. In 1990, Chevrolet controlled 19 percent of the U.S. new-car and -truck market; today it accounts for just 15 percent. At current sales levels, that's a loss of more than 600,000 vehicles per year.

"Chevy is Main Street America," Mr. Ritter said. "That's what our customer base has been over time. But Main Street America is changing. So we need to make sure our product offerings are aimed at a [more] diverse America."

To recapture those evolving customers Chevrolet is preparing a slate of niche products designed to generate a little market buzz and showroom traffic. First up is the Avalanche, a full-size pickup/sport utility hybrid that will hit dealer lots early next year. That will be followed by the SSR, a retro-styled pickup/roadster on the calendar for 2003. And capping off the product assault will be the Traverse, a carlike sport utility vehicle set for 2004.

Mr. Ritter also hints the Camaro muscle car, slated for phaseout after 2002, will make a comeback in some form.

"The Camaro has got to live on," he said. "We have made significant investment over the last 30 years in that brand name. We need to find a way to capitalize on that in the future."

To be sure, Chevrolet still will have some holes. Budget constraints are relegating its fading Cavalier small car largely to carryover status for several years to come. And Chevy seriously trails archrival Ford in minivan and small truck sales. But Mr. Ritter believes the new products in the pipeline and other recent successes strong Impala sedan and Silverado pickup demand have the division headed in the right direction.

"This is a momentum business," he said. "When you have it you can do great things. Chevy has momentum. [But] there isn't anybody racing toward the finish line here because we know it is going to take us awhile to get there."

WARD'S AUTOMOTIVE REPORTS

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