THIRTY years ago, one in four Americans was likely to see the USA in his or her Chevrolet. Today, battered by the recession and many mistakes, the Chevy nameplate is on only 1 of 8 cars sold in the US.
While General Motors's largest division has an aggressive plan, the question is whether it can act quickly enough to stop losing market share.
"Chevrolet is at a pivotal place in its history," says J. C. Perkins, Chevy's general manager. Sales slipped more than 12 percent during the 1992 model year, allowing Ford Motor Company's Ford division to overtake Chevy as America's best-selling passenger-car brand. Part of the problem is the Chevy Lumina. When it was introduced five years ago, GM expected it to become a bestseller. But it didn't stack up against competitors such as the Ford Taurus and Honda Accord. Lumina sales have barely hit half of e xpectations. Worse, the Lum-ina is more complex to build than cars such as the Taurus, causing quality problems and increasing production costs by perhaps $1,000 a vehicle.
Because GM is in the red, it has also had to scale back product development. That's hitting Chevy hard because it has the broadest lineup in the business - ranging from the Geo Metro to the full-sized Caprice. Chevy must even go up "against some of the other GM divisions, like Saturn, which has fresh models," says John Casesa, a Wertheim-Schroder analyst.
"Saturn is supposed to take away import buyers, but ... it's really cutting into Chevrolet," says Joe Lunghamer Jr., a Chevy dealer in Pontiac, Mich.
Chevy planners are hoping a new GeoPrizm will help counter Saturn and the imports. Indeed, the Geo lineup has been one of Chevy's few bright spots. Not only does Geo mean more sales, says Mr. Casesa, but it attracts "young, well-educated customers Chevrolet dealers would never see without the Geo." Chevy trucks are also a success. For the first time, the division expects to close the calendar year with its truck line outselling its passenger car products.