Bob Thomas, left, of North Jackson and Ray Milstead of Austintown talked Tuesday at the Spitzer Chevrolet dealership in North Jackson about driving their Chevrolet Cruzes. Thomas and Milstead each bought one of the first Cruzes last fall. The Lordstown-built car celebrates the anniversary of its launch Thursday.
Aug. 21, 2008: General Motors Co. announces it will invest more than $500 million in the U.S. to build the Chevrolet Cruze, a new compact car, in Lordstown.
Sept. 15, 2009: President Barack Obama visits General Motors’ Lordstown plant.
Feb. 23, 2010: Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, announces a third shift at Lordstown.
Sept. 8, 2010: The Cruze launches.
March 17, 2011: GM cancels some production of Cruzes due to a parts shortage caused by fire at a Michigan manufacturing plant. The cancellation lasts for four days.
April 7, 2011: GM recalls 2,100 Cruzes to inspect for an improperly fastened steering wheel after discovering one vehicle with the defect.
May 4, 2011: GM announces recall of 154,112 Cruze models to check for improperly installed automatic-transmission shift links and intermediate steering shafts.
May 1, 2011: The Cruze has its best month to date. GM sells 25,160 Cruzes.
June 1, 2011: GM sells 22,711 Cruzes in May and becomes the first American-made vehicle to lead the compact-car category in five years.
July 1, 2011: Cruze becomes best-selling car in America in June, topping the Toyota Camry, after GM sells 24,896 of the Lordstown-built vehicles.
July 22, 2011: GM announces diesel model of Cruze to be built at an undetermined location starting in 2013.
July 28, 2011: Nearly 9,000 attend the first open house at the Lordstown plant since 1986.
By Karl Henkel
Last September, Bob Thomas was in the market for a new car.
He wanted a vehicle easy on the eyes — and his wallet.
A new car fit his criteria: The Chevrolet Cruze.
Thomas, 76, who worked at General Motors Co. for more than 30 years, immediately jumped at the chance to buy the car.
“It’s GM and it’s Lordstown and I worked there,” Thomas said. “And it has amazing power and quickness for a four-cylinder engine. I can’t find one thing to complain about.”
He touted many aspects, including 34.7-mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency he recently recorded on a trip to Tennessee.
Thomas’ story mirrors those of the 193,922 new Cruze owners nationwide who have made the Lordstown-built auto the new leader in the compact-car market. For a time, it was the No. 1 selling car in America.
The eye-catching car celebrates the anniversary of its launch Thursday.
During the past year, it has drawn interest from every direction.
Dave Green, president of United Auto Workers 1714, bought one of the first-built Cruzes. Celebrity Alec Baldwin used Twitter.com to broadcast his thoughts on the car in July.
“Rented a Chevy Cruze at Syracuse Airport,” he wrote. “Fantastic little car.”
Analysts also have raved and say the success of the car can be credited to two things: GM’s massive marketing campaign leading up to the launch and the fact the car was first introduced overseas in 2006.
“From a marketing standpoint, they had a lot riding on the vehicle,” said Kristen Andersson, auto analyst at TrueCars.com.
Starting overseas prepared consumers such as Ray Milstead, 79, of Austintown for the American launch.
The former railroader heard about the Cruze from friends in England, who raved about the fuel economy — a gallon of gas currently costs about twice as much in England — and the luxury-type amenities.
“It’s got everything but the kitchen sink,” Milstead said. “It’s the best car I’ve ever driven, and I’ve driven a lot of cars.”
The overseas test also helped build and solidify the model in the U.S.; GM wasn’t starting from scratch.
“Basically, all the bugs were taken out in Europe and Asia,” said Jim Graham, president of United Auto Workers Local 1112. “It’s a lot easier when you know what you have, and any problems you have, were corrected.”
There were still a couple of hiccups in the manufacturing of the American model.
The Cruze suffered a 2,100-car recall in April. The recall focused on the steering column, which in one car was not properly attached to the steering wheel, and caused one driver’s wheel to detach during a drive.
Then, in May, GM recalled 154,112 Cruzes — which at the time represented all Cruzes on the road and many at dealerships nationwide.
What prompted the recalls? Potential problems with the intermediate steering shaft, which could have caused a driver to lose steering power, and improperly installed automatic-transmission shift links could have caused the car to unexpectedly shift gears.
No accidents or injuries resulted from the potential problems, and a little negative press didn’t deter drivers from flocking to what some analysts say is GM’s most successful compact car in years.
“We learned a huge lesson in 2008 [during the auto collapse],” Graham said. “You cannot take the consumer for granted. You can’t keep secrets. If we even think there’s a problem, we’ll stop production and let the public know.”
The strategy worked.
GM in April sold 25,160 Cruzes — still the highest monthly total to date — and has now sold more than 21,000 of the Lordstown-built vehicles in five consecutive months.
In June, the Cruze became America’s best-selling vehicle and overtook the top spot among compact cars, a considerable accomplishment considering that during the five previous years, that crown was shared by either the Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic. During that time, no American-made car cracked the top spot for even one month.
The Toyota Camry topped the Cruze overall in July, but the Cruze maintained its lead in the compact-car category and has even surprised some at the Lordstown plant.
“To be honest, I think the sales are exceeding our expectations,” said Bob Parcell, plant manager.
The demand has kept the east and west complexes at Lordstown quite busy. The plant has regularly operated on most Saturdays, a great problem to have, Green said.
“In the auto industry, you’re either working or you’re not,” he said. “The fact we’re working all year and have had a good year, it’s gotten everybody a little tired but also excited.”