Event may help spur slow sales

CLEVELAND – Snow and cold, expected to continue this week as we roll into March, already hurt auto sales the first two months of the year throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

But General Motors’ marketing manager for small cars isn’t too worried yet.

“I personally expect we are going to have a pretty raucous spring,” Dora Nowicki said Friday. The Cleveland Auto Show, under way this week near the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, may just help spur those sales.

Snow and ice predicted for northeast Ohio weren’t marring the plans for auto dealers and marketers inside the Cleveland I-X Center. The annual show opened to the public Saturday inside the nearly 1.2 million-square-foot facility and runs through March 9. It showcases more than 35 automobile makes from the world’s manufacturers, including both domestic and imports. Also included are concept, pre-production and production vehicles along with a hall featuring more than a hundred classic or antique cars.

Nowicki chatted as she sat near three 2014 Lordstown-built Chevy Cruzes on display in Chevrolet’s exhibit at the show. She had made the trip from Detroit to Cleveland for Friday’s media preview day.

Nowicki is responsible for marketing Chevrolet’s lineup of small cars, including the Cruze, and others including the Chevy Sonic and Spark. The Cruze, one of the older vehicles in GM’s portfolio, remains the top-selling car, and ranked number two in U.S. sales behind only the Silverado pickup.

“If you look around the floor, everything in the portfolio is fairly recent. The Cruze was launched here in 2009 as the 2010 model,” Nowicki said. “There have been a variety of upgrades since then with the diesel being the most recent.”

She was speaking about last year’s launch of the Cruze Turbo Diesel, also being built in Lordstown. Since its launch, just less than 4,000 new Cruze diesels have sold nationwide. An improving national economy and the uptick in labor force numbers is leading people to rethink what vehicles they want to buy. Those who travel further on a regular basis are more likely to lean toward the Cruze diesel, the highest-fuel economy vehicle in the country, ranked at 46 mpg. That outpaces even the Cruze Eco by about 4 mpg.

“The difference between the two (Cruze diesel and Cruze Eco) is the way that you drive. If you are a frequent traveler, or if you are on the road a lot and you are driving long distances, the diesel makes eminently more sense,” Nowicki said. Still sales so far have been proven to ebb and flow from market to market.

“We’ve got pockets. We are doing very well in California, the upper Midwest, Milwaukee, Houston,” she said. Marketers already have seen a correlation among buyers who own diesel trucks tending to purchase diesel cars as well.

“It’s a learning curve,” she said, referring to the need to educate the consumer that new diesels like the Cruze burn cleanly, don’t leave a diesel odor and also run more quietly than diesels of years past. One of the pitfalls, however, is the higher price of diesel fuel at the pumps and the loss of some cargo space due to the diesel emission fluid tank below the trunk.

While GM is laying out plans for launch of the next generation Cruze, the company has remained mum on the exact launch date or model year. In the meantime, though, a mostly aesthetic upgrade is being planned for the 2015 model year. Upcoming models and new designs are rarely discussed by GM officials, and Friday was no different. Nowicki would say only that the 2015 model is expected to be previewed at the New York Auto Show that kicks off Easter weekend.

GM’s plans to keep the car “fresh” pleased United Auto Workers Local 1112 President Glenn Johnson, who recently expressed his satisfaction that the company was not choosing to rest on its laurels as plans are laid for the next generation car.

So after selling a record 248,224 Cruzes in the U.S. and nearly 300,000 in North America – all built at the Lordstown assembly and fabrication plants – how does the company hope to improve on that?

“You listen to the customer. That is the focus of everything that we do,” Nowicki said simply. “When you look at this car in the development that went into it, we listened locally and we listened globally.”