Chrysler Group president and CEO Dieter Zetsche told a business conference in Canada that the company is thriving as a result of its 1998 merger with Daimler-Benz.

He added that Chrysler was transforming its North American operations and going back on the offensive with nine new products launched this year, including the Canadian-built 300C, which would be exported in both left- and right-hand drive forms from 2006.

“The North American auto market is contested like no other market in the world,” Zetsche told a group of 170 CEOs, presidents and corporate executives. “Just about any large shopping mall parking lot tells the story. Focusing on how to adapt and compete in the new order is the key to survival.”

He credited the six-year-old merger for laying the foundation of the group’s global transformation, but noted that significant improvements in productivity, quality and costs had to be achieved first in North America. As a result of the sharp focus on these initiatives, Zetsche said the group has made significant improvements and is working to close the gap between the best automotive companies in the world. The goal, he told the audience, is to equal or exceed them in key areas by 2007.

While much work over the past three years was focused on surviving, Zetsche said, “We are now going on the offensive and striking back in the best way you can, namely with hot products.”

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He said that international demand for the Brampton, Ontario-built Chrysler 300C is outpacing supply by more than 30% this year and, with the addition of the 300C Touring sports wagon (the export version of the domestic Dodge Magnum), the 300C family is giving the company added strength in traditionally European- dominated segments.

He added that the 300C momentum would continue. “I can confirm today that in 2006 we will start to sell left- and right-hand drive versions of the Chrysler 300C and SRT-8, (the recently introduced higher performance version) outside of North America.”

He said Chrysler was able to keep cost down while accelerating development of these rear-wheel/all-wheel drive vehicles by drawing on the engineering expertise within the DaimlerChrysler family.

“The 300C and SRT-8 are tangible evidence of another important way in which the merger is paying off,” Zetsche said.

Because of the strong portfolio of products, Zetsche said the group is “stepping up our international market initiatives.”  With vehicle sales in more than 125 countries, it plans to sell about 180,000 vehicles outside of North America in 2004. By 2007, the number of models available in markets outside of North America will more than double to approximately 18. And in that same period, the number of right-hand drive vehicles will double to more than a dozen.

Zetsche said that DaimlerChrysler Canada has an emerging role to play in the company’s global “mindset” and product offensive as “a market proving ground.”

“In terms of buying patterns, gas taxes, consumer tastes and market segmentation, the Canadian market much more reflects that of Europe and other international markets than does the US market,” Zetsche said. “This is one reason that we’ll closely be tracking demands and consumer response to our 2005 Jeep Liberty (Cherokee) Diesel. If we’re successful, we could expand our diesel offerings to the Jeep line or into other vehicles available in Canada in the next couple of years.”