Can a Toyota Exec Make Chrysler Competitive Again?

Jim Press shocked the automotive world when he jumped from Toyota to Chrysler last month. After all, Toyota is a juggernaut that just became the world's largest car company, while Chrysler is struggling to survive as America's newly independent No. 3 automaker. Chrysler's new owners, Cerberus Capital Management hope to reverse more than $2 billion in recent losses with the help of Press, Toyota's former top U.S. executive, and his new boss, Bob Nardelli, Home Depot's ex-CEO. Press, 60, began his new job as vice chairman at Chrysler last week, taking charge of sales, marketing and product strategy. In his first week, he dropped in on a few car dealers, drove 80 models at the company's test track and visited the design studio, where he peppered the stylists with suggestions, including where to put the cup holders. There are already 200 design changes in the works on Chrysler's current and future models, Press said.

After a week on the job, Press sat down with NEWSWEEK's Keith Naughton to discuss his career move, his vision for a green-car society and how he needs to cull the herd of overlapping models at Chrysler. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why would you leave the automotive equivalent of the New York Yankees to join a team on a losing streak?
Jim Press: I don't know if I would put it that way. I did not leave because I was unhappy or dissatisfied. I was quite happy there and maybe a little too comfortable. Toyota is a great, strong company and I owe everything that I am and have to them. But my position there had grown into one of very high-level management. I was sort of in the sunset of my career. And here I get another sunrise. How lucky could I be?

How did Cerberus CEO Stephen Feinberg convince you to leave a 37-year career at Toyota?
Steve Feinberg didn't describe this as a financial play. He is a great American patriot who sees this as an opportunity to re-energize a great American icon. His vision is to create a domestic auto company that can show the world that, yes, a U.S.-based auto company can compete in the global market. That's exciting. I could have been very comfortable and stayed at Toyota and had a very nice end of my run. But I like the smell of the sheet metal on the showroom floor.

All three of Toyota's brands are above average in J.D. Power's quality survey, while all three of Chrysler's brands are below average. How would you assess Chrysler's quality?
There's no question that Toyota has been and will continue to be the benchmark for quality. But I think the Chrysler products don't get the respect they really deserve. That was one of the appeal points that brought me here. The reality is far better than the perception. If you look at the bones of the company, the products have an inherent emotional appeal to people who can appreciate a well-engineered vehicle. As the quality comes up, you'll see our products accelerate substantially.

Did you bring anything from Toyota to help Chrysler improve its quality?
I didn't bring any playbooks from Toyota. My pockets are empty. I can help energize the organization and give them the tools, the vision, the strategic perspective to see the world through the customer's eyes.

At Toyota you were known as "Jim Pressure" for relentlessly arguing to fix problem models, like making the Tundra pickup bigger. What will you press hardest for at Chrysler?
I have found an openness and a desire to improve that has amazed me. They already started before I got here. They've got over 200 engineering change recommendations under way for improving the products that are currently on the road or in the pipeline. What we're going to do is circle back to a customer-driven strategy and make sure we're focused on the sweet spot of the market. We can build on the engineering capability, the understanding of the emotion and the appeal of the design and the exhilaration of driving a fine automobile. And [we can] add the comfort and convenience features offered by other companies that are known for selling [automotive] appliances. If you look at the product offerings that are successful today, the missing ingredient is the love affair with the automobile and the emotion you get from a design that elicits desire and the satisfaction of driving a really well-engineered piece of machinery.

Did you push for more emotion in the look of the Camry back when you were at Toyota?
I really can't talk about what I was doing at Toyota because that ship has sailed.

Analysts feel like Chrysler has too many overlapping models , especially SUVs. What would you get rid of?
I can't answer the question the same way [today] as next week or in a couple weeks. But there do seem to be products that cover the same market from different brands or even within brands. I think we can do a lot by eliminating some duplicative models and, at the same time, adding models that will extend our footprint and reach plus give customers a wider range of choice. Instead of two or four vehicles competing against each other, we'll have a broader range that compliment each other and compete with vehicles from companies outside of Chrysler.

You've said the secret to the success of the Prius is that Toyota has the best hybrid system. What do you think of the hybrid system that Chrysler is buying from GM and will be putting in the Dodge Durango SUV next year?
First of all, we know the imperative of our business is to serve society. And vehicles that are responsible in regards to use of fossil-based fuels, and emission issues and CO2 have to be addressed. The company that will do the best will be the one that doesn't compromise the product but can give the customer the best of both worlds. So it's not how small you make the truck. But how clean and fuel efficient a big truck can be. The customer can't put a cement mixer in the back of a small SUV like the Caliber. The two-mode hybrid system [from GM] gives us, in our SUVs and our truck line, an opportunity to provide vehicles that are finely focused on attributes that American drivers seek in using their vehicles on American roads in American conditions.

But what do you think of Chrysler's plan to introduce a hybrid in a big SUV rather than a small family car like the Prius?
Eventually, everything's going to be a hybrid. You'll have diesel hybrids. You've got fuel-cell hybrids. You've got all-electric cars that use a hybrid system. Plug-in hybrid.

There seems to be an anti-Detroit sentiment afoot in Washington. Why do you think that is, and did you play any role in it?
No, not at all. I'm not sure that it's just Detroit. I think the auto industry for too long failed to take a leadership position engaging with regulators and lawmakers to develop mutually agreeable and effective solutions to the energy issues that we're involved in. Maybe the companies who had the smallest vehicles, like Toyota, could be used as good examples. But I'm not so sure that the industry itself is really being treated any differently.

I'm really heartened by the fact that in this current [gas-mileage-regulation] debate that we're involved in now, that the industry is fully engaged in a collaborative manner. We're part of this discussion and that will allow us, hopefully, to arrive at solutions that have great benefit to society, both in terms of the environment and energy issues, as well as the economic impact. You can optimize both. They're not either/or.

Have you ever owned a Chrysler?
I never have. I worked for GM. I worked for Ford and I worked for Toyota. And that's pretty much the brands that I've had.

What's in your driveway now?
I'm driving a different car every day. There's a Ram SR-T [souped-up pickup] that I've kind of got my eye on. I've always like trucks and SUVs.

So you're going to work your way through the entire product line?
I am. I've got to learn the products. The products are what make us. You know, it's a simple business. There are dealers and there are products. We've got to build the right products and give the dealers good stuff to sell.