SALTILLO, Mexico (AP) _ Workers at DaimlerChrysler AG's Saltillo plant got a visit from Chrysler Group's future president and Mexican government officials Thursday as they began building the 2006 Dodge Ram Mega Cab, a behemoth that Chrysler is counting on to boost sales in the growing pickup market.
Chrysler's incoming president and chief executive Tom LaSorda, who will take over the top job on Jan. 1, drove a Mega Cab through a false brick wall in front of hundreds of cheering workers at the plant.
LaSorda, who is Chrysler's chief operating officer, said the newly renovated plant is now one of DaimlerChrysler's most flexible. He said the plant can build multiple vehicle styles on the same assembly line, allowing the company to respond quickly to market demand.
``This team has compiled an excellent record of achievement. Because of your outstanding work here, DaimlerChrysler has made this decision'' to build the Mega Cab in Saltillo, said LaSorda, who was joined by Mexican Economic Secretary Fernando Canales, among others.
Chrysler said the Mega Cab has the most interior room in the industry, with seating for six adults and more than 7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat. The Mega Cab is Dodge's answer to consumers who have been migrating away from the Dodge Ram as competitors introduced more spacious cabs.
Chrysler spokesman Jason Vines said dealers have ordered 17,000 Mega Cabs in the last two weeks, exceeding the company's expectations. Chrysler had expected to sell about 85,000 Mega Cabs for the entire year, Vines said. The Mega Cab is scheduled to hit showrooms in early September.
More U.S. consumers are opting for large pickups as their interiors become more upscale and car-like. According to the Power Information Network, sales of full-size pickups were up 5.3 percent in the first seven months of this year, while sales of mid-size pickups fell 1.2 percent.
But 2005 Dodge Ram hasn't been riding that wave. Ram sales were down 4.3 percent in the first seven months of the year, according to Autodata Corp. By comparison, Ford Motor Co.'s F-150 saw sales rise 5 percent through July. Asian competitors also have bitten off a chunk of full-size pickup sales. The Toyota Tundra and the Nissan Titan both saw sales jump more than 20 percent in the first seven months of this year.
The trip was a chance for LaSorda to emphasize the company's efforts to improve manufacturing efficiency. LaSorda has made lean manufacturing a priority in his five years at the company. He is taking over for Chrysler president and CEO Dieter Zetsche, who is becoming CEO of DaimlerChrysler.
Chrysler said it invested $210 million and added 100,000 square feet to the 10-year-old Saltillo plant to retool it for the Mega Cab. The plant, which is 50 miles southwest of Monterrey, has 155 new robots in its body shop to improve efficiency. Saltillo's 2,100 workers also build the Dodge Ram 2500, the Ram 2500 Heavy Duty and the Ram SRT10.
The Saltillo plant has some catching up to do in terms of efficiency. It placed tenth among full-size pickup plants and behind DaimlerChrysler pickup plants in Missouri and Michigan in the 2004 Harbour Report, which measures North American productivity.
Workers at Saltillo took 26.3 hours to assemble a pickup. That compares to 19.8 hours for workers at the top performer, a General Motors Corp. plant in Fort Wayne, Ind.
The Mega Cab will be an available option on the Dodge Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500. Chrysler hasn't set a price for the Dodge Ram Mega Cab, but a 2005 Dodge Ram 1500 with a crew cab, automatic transmission and four-wheel-drive started at $34,245.
Ford also rolled new models off a Mexican assembly line on Wednesday. Canales was on hand to watch the first cars come out of the revamped Hermosillo plant that recently underwent a $1.2 billion expansion.
Suppliers invested another $400 million to build operations alongside it.
The plant has the capacity to produce 300,000 Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyrs a year. Ninety percent are headed for export, largely to the United States.
Canales' office said it was one of the largest automotive investments ever made in Mexico and would directly or indirectly generate more than 30,000 jobs.