LORDSTOWN - Hailing the moment as the "rebirth of the American economy," General Motors Co. North America President Mark Reuss joined workers, elected officials and others Wednesday at the Lordstown Complex to officially launch the Chevrolet Cruze.
"The rebirth of the American economy starts right here at Lordstown with a world-class, high-volume car built in the heartland of America," Reuss told the crowd after driving a 2011 red Cruze sedan with Governor Ted Strickland from the assembly line to the plant's doorstep.
Held under a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, complete with the marching band from Boardman High School and a color guard, the launch kicks off a campaign to sell a car made at the 4,500-worker complex that experts widely consider to be GM's most important new vehicle.
Gov. Ted Strickland Speaks in Lordstown
Strickland said the Cruze repudiates "naysayers" who doubt GM's ability to make high-quality vehicles, saying he has four words for them: "Look at this car."
Union leaders representing about 4,150 hourly workers hailed the Cruze launch as proof the complex and GM can compete with entrenched foreign small cars.
"The Asian markets can throw what they want at us; we will compete with anything, and we will beat them," said Jim Graham, president of United Auto Workers Local 1112 at the Lordstown East assembly plant, where the cars are built.
General Motors Co. North America President Mark Reuss, far left, and Ohio Go. Ted Strickland, left, give thumbs-up as a Cruze makes its way down the assembly line for the official launch Wednesday morning at the GM Lordstown Complex. To see or purchase more photos, visit cu.tribtoday.com.
Tribune Chronicle photos / R. Michael Semple
"To the naysayers, I say go out and drive a Cruze. We'll change the way you think," said Dave Green, president of Local 1714 of the Lordstown West Metal Center.
The upscale small cars, which GM expects will draw buyers from segment leaders Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, were scheduled to start arriving at dealerships later Wednesday or today, dealers said.
Squaring off against Asian small cars is a daunting task that Reuss has faced before. He said he launched the Australian version of the Cruze in 2009 under the Holden nameplate during his short tenure as chairman of GM Holden.
Facing 50-plus brands, the car quickly rose to No. 2 in the segment and now ranks No. 1, he told reporters.
Reuss declined to give any sales projections for the Cruze except to say he hopes to sell "hundreds of thousands" in the next few years.
"We'll fight in the trenches to win every sale," he said.
The car already has sold nearly 400,000 units, including the Holden and Korean Daewoo models, around the world since being launched in 2009. The car is Chevy's best-selling model worldwide, he noted.
Priced from $16,995 for the base LS model to $22,695 for the LTZ model, the Cruze is GM's effort to claim the small-car title for combining fuel efficiency with comfort, style and other elements for which foreign small cars have been known.
The lineup won't get its highest gas mileage version - the Eco, with a manual six-speed transmission and a new 1.4 liter turbocharged engine - until later this year. The car is projected to get 40 miles per gallon, although it hasn't yet been rated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The key to success, Reuss said, is, "Get people into the car."
To help do just that, GM is asking its roughly 3,000 Chevy dealers to have a Corolla and a Civic on their lot so shoppers can compare the Cruze directly to the competition.
Allowing customers to compare the small cars side-by-side is "very important," Reuss said, adding dealers are willing to make the commitment because GM's relationship with dealers "has changed" in recent months.
Another thing that's new with the new, leaner GM since its 2009 bankruptcy is less willingness to stimulate sales through rebates and other incentives.
The automaker often put juicier incentives on the Cruze predecessor, the Cobalt, than Toyota and Honda did for their cars. The practice not only turned GM small cars into money-losers, but it also hurt the car's image.
"We're not coming in with this car, with all of its content and safety features and put bargain basement prices on it. We're not in it for next month's sales; we're in it for the long-term," Reuss said.