What can save the Big Three?

April 1, 2009 (CHICAGO) ABC7's Sarah Schulte talked to some local dealers and industry experts.

Even without a recession and plunging sales, Detroit's Big Three faces a customer perception that American cars are not as good as imports. Some auto experts say quality has changed in the past 5 years. However, that message has yet to reach the customer.

A Chevy or a Toyota. One North Side car dealership sells both and, yes, the import is the much easier sell.

"There is a lot more demand for Toyotas. A lot more people come in and ask for them," said Ray Kouchaba, sales manager.

While American car companies struggle to survive financially, auto experts say one of the biggest challenges for Ford, GM or Chrsyler is overcoming the perception that American cars are lemons compared to imports.

"There is a lot of Americans that still remember the 70s, 80s and 90s with Toyota. I think Detroit has fixed quality problems, but a lot of Americans don't give them a chance and no amount of bailout money is going to fix that," said Dave Whiston, auto equity analyst.

Whiston says it make take a full generation change that perception.

DePaul business school marketing professor Loida Rosario conducted a class project on how to successfully market an American car.

"First and foremost American car companies need to make sure cars are as good as competitors," said Rosario.

While auto experts and cars dealers says say some of the American cars are as good, Rosario says Detroit has done a lousy job of communicating that to the public. She says American car companies must reposition themselves by capturing the emotion of the first-time car buyer.

"It is no longer fun to say I'm buying my first car and it's a GM, nobody says that," said Rosario.

For now, car dealers say it is up to them to educate their customers about what they call good quality and fuel-efficient American cars.

"We let a lot more customers take a car overnight so they can understand it," said Brian Weinberg, car dealer.

When it comes to marketing and advertising, some experts say the car companies need to get away from the "push strategy." That is where they push all the cars they make to all consumers, instead of marketing a specific model to a specific audience. Some say Detroit's Big Three need to go back and understand their customer.

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