Lutz faces tough challenge in Europe, too

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Among the challenges Lutz faces in Europe is to put more pizzazz into Opel, redefine Saab's brand image and get Alfa Romeo ready for North America.

FRANKFURT - This year, Robert Lutz won't be just one more melancholy retired auto executive strolling around the Frankfurt auto show.

As General Motors' newly minted vice chairman for product development, the 69-year-old former Chrysler Corp. president comes to Europe's biggest auto show this week with a full set of operational responsibilities.

True, Lutz's main job is to help fix GM's lackluster North American lineup. But Lutz has serious work to do in Europe, too.

Among the challenges he faces in Europe is to put more pizzazz into Opel, redefine Saab's brand image and get Alfa Romeo ready for North America.

Opel's new chairman, Carl-Peter Forster, is dealing with the fundamental problems of high costs and overcapacity. But GM's cornerstone European brand is in desperate need of a new generation of inspiring vehicles.

Opel's product momentum of the mid-1980s is long gone. Absent from the lineup are head turners such as the Calibra and Tigra. And the latest Corsa, Vectra and Omega models make us long for their predecessors.

Only the Zafira minivan with its flexible seating configuration shows that Opel can do more than "me-too" products.

Lutz's help is much needed at Opel, where he started his career in 1963. But his influence won't be apparent until the 2005 Corsa replacement. Another generation of Vectra, Astra and Omega will go to market with little or no input from the great man.

Meanwhile, after 12 years of GM ownership, Saab is nowhere in terms of image, product range, volume and appeal. If the 9x concept car debuting this week really shows the design direction for future Saabs, the ex-Marine pilot may have to parachute immediately into Sweden.

Then there is Alfa Romeo. The marque will return to the United States through GM dealers by 2005, so there is enough time for GM product specialists to review the models. No one should be more involved than Lutz.

You can reach Luca Ciferri at lciferri@crain.com

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