Despite UAW strikes that shut down General Motors for two months, Oldsmobile managed an 8.2 percent sales increase last year. It sold 329,742 cars and light trucks.
Now it is up to Karen Francis, Oldsmobile's new general marketing manager, to sustain the division's sales momentum.
'We think 400,000 (sales) should be within reach' for 1999, she said.
'That's what we have in our heads; that's our plan, and those are our marching orders.'
Francis' challenge is to get people to believe Oldsmobile has changed - that it is not the producer of stodgy vehicles that end up in rental car fleets.
But in a market clamoring for sport wagons and sport-utilities, Oldsmobile still is relying on sedans. And its brand image still carries a lot of dull GM baggage.
Oldsmobile has spent most of the 1990s reshaping its lineup to attract import-minded baby boomers. It added the last piece of the puzzle, the Alero, last year.
John Rock, Oldsmobile's former general manager, said, 'We knew we would hit rock bottom in '97, and we would find out whether the dogs would eat the dog food in '98.'
Francis began her sales campaign last month with a 60-second TV commercial during the Super Bowl. It crowed: 'The New Oldsmobile: Cars and trucks for people who refuse to remain in neutral.'
The fast-paced, upbeat commercial features Oldsmobile's current lineup: the Alero, Aurora, Bravada, Intrigue and Silhouette.
The pitch of the commercial is that Oldsmobile has sophisticated, well-styled, performance-oriented sedans along with a minivan and a sport-utility.
But 'anyone depending on sedans (like Oldsmobile) will have a hard time building volume quickly,' said Susan Jacobs, a market analyst based in Rutherford, N.J. 'Stylish sedans can't make you an exciting brand.'
Jacobs said Oldsmobile needs a halo vehicle, such as the Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper or Plymouth Prowler.
The division may run the brand commercial throughout the 1999 calendar year. And last month, Oldsmobile began running individual ads for its nameplates that will tie them all together under the tag line: 'Start Something.'
Francis said Oldsmobile will pick its spots with its advertising. 'We're not going to try to compete with everybody all the time,' she said.
For instance, Oldsmobile will put advertising money behind its Silhouette during the peak minivan-selling months: May, June and July.
The division will push the Oldsmobile Bravada sport-utility in its top 20 markets. But the four-wheel-drive Bravada does not sell well in Florida, a two-wheel-drive sport-utility market. So there will be little Bravada advertising there.
Art Spinella, an analyst with CNW/Marketing in Bandon, Ore., said Oldsmobile could reach 500,000 sales in two years. But after that the division will have problems increasing volume, he said.
With her low-end models as the bullets, Francis is gunning for more than her stated goal of 400,000 sales.
In addition to the 140,000 Aleros she expects to sell this year, she also wants to boost Intrigue sales by about 10 percent, to 100,000.
Francis said she is trying to get Chevrolet to decrease its allotment of Ventures from the one North American assembly plant that produces all of General Motors' front-drive minivans, so Oldsmobile can get more Silhouettes to sell this year.
So far, so good this year. Oldsmobile's January sales were 26,609, up 38.6 percent from the same month last year.
'The issue is getting cars to sell,' said Jim Hall, an analyst at AutoPacific Inc. 'But they've also got to add value to the product.'
The Intrigue's new advertising features its new engine, which Oldsmobile is marketing as the 3.5-liter twin cam V-6.
Next year, Francis said, the Alero will have a five-speed manual transmission, and the Intrigue will be equipped with StabiliTrak, an anti-skid system.
CHASING IMPORT FANS
The division's increased sales are supposed to come from capturing import intenders. But the numbers suggest Oldsmobile has a long way to go to realize that goal.
Francis said Oldsmobile's conquest rate of owners from outside GM is 30 percent, the best of any GM division. But the Intrigue, with a 12 percent rate, is the division's leader in capturing import intenders.
Dealer Mike Herzog of Herzog-Meier Auto Center in Beaverton, Ore., summed up Oldsmobile's situation: 'We're attracting non-Oldsmobile owners into the showrooms to buy Oldsmobiles. But we need more of them.'