The battered U.S. auto market will eventually see sales return to levels posted before the economic meltdown, but not for at least another two to three years, the chairman of German automaker Daimler AG said Thursday.
Dieter Zetsche also said that Chrysler Group LLC _ which Daimler used to own _ has a challenging future ahead as it reorganizes, but new technology from Italian partner Fiat Group LLC should help strengthen the U.S. automaker's product lineup.
"There are quite a number of positive changes going for Chrysler, but certainly the environment continues to be very tough and the competition isn't forgiving at all," Zetsche said during a roundtable discussion with reporters in New York.
Auto sales in the U.S. have been pummeled by the economic recession, with per-capita sales levels falling to levels not seen in a quarter century earlier this year. That helped force Chrysler and crosstown rival General Motors Co. to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection over the summer.
But auto sales began showing signs of stability in October. They were flat compared with last year and many automakers, including GM, posted positive sales numbers.
Most analysts and automakers expect Americans to buy slightly more than 10 million cars this year. That's down from 13.2 million in 2008 and the record of 17.3 million sold in 2000.
Zetsche said Thursday he was optimistic the U.S. could support those numbers again, though it would not be until 2012 or 2013. He said unlike other markets, such as Europe, the U.S. has a growing population that will support increasing vehicle sales.
"I do believe that the U.S. market will come back to former volumes," Zetsche said.
Zetsche, who led both Chrysler and Daimler until selling Chrysler to a private-equity firm in 2007, also said he still feels an affinity toward the U.S. carmaker. He said he is "crossing my fingers" that the automaker succeeds.
"I continue to be emotional about this company," said Zetsche, who also served as Chrysler's pitchman and starred in commercials as a cartoon version of himself named "Dr. Z."
Chrysler partnered with Fiat after it emerged from bankruptcy earlier this year. Last week, the Italian automaker unveiled a sweeping five-year plan to save Chrysler that involves doubling its sales over that period and bringing Fiat's small cars from Europe to the U.S.
When asked if he had any advice for Fiat head Sergio Marchionne, Zetsche said Fiat should not focus so much on small cars that it forgets about bigger vehicles.
"Customers looking for SUVs, looking for pickups and larger cars (are) an important ingredient of success," he said.