Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee A. Iacocca has vowed that his company will bring a high-technology subcompact car to the U.S. market before General Motors Corp. can roll one out from its highly publicized Saturn project.
Chrysler officials confirmed news reports yesterday that Iacocca made the pledge at a Detroit meeting with analysts, bankers and brokers Monday night. Reporters were barred from the meeting, but several of those in attendance relayed Iacocca's remarks.
"He said it," Chrysler spokesman Baron Bates said. "We have a car. We have a driveable subcompact that will be in development. It was not our intention to publicize it at this point.
"But Lee mentioned it at the meeting. And someone in the meeting went and leaked it to everyone in the press," Bates said.
He would not elaborate.
If Chrysler delivers on Iacocca's promise, it will represent a stunning upset in the domestic auto industry's race to come up with a product and a production process aimed at using technology to enhance customer satisfaction and to reduce manufacturing costs drastically.
But there also is the risk of embarrassment if the company fails.
Although Chrysler officials insist that their chairman is serious, there was some speculation yesterday that Iacocca may have been trying to blunt the tremendous amount of publicity surrounding GM's Saturn project.
GM announced on Jan. 8 that it would spend $5 billion over the next three to five years to set up Saturn Corp. -- an independent, wholly owned subsidiary -- to produce and market up to 450,000 front-wheel-drive subcompact cars a year.
The first saleable Saturn car is expected to roll by 1990. According to sources, Iacocca did not specify by what time he expects to beat that deadline.
Chrysler officials for the last two years have been discussing what they called Concept 90 -- an ultra-modern car produced with robots and other high-technology tools at costs competitive with Japanese manufacturers, who now have at least a $1,500-a-unit production-cost advantage over their American rivals.
Concept 90 has been renamed The Liberty Project, Iacocca reportedly told the analysts.
GM officials yesterday declined comment on Iacocca's challenge. They had other concerns -- especially how to handle a potential public relations problem May 1, when they finally announce the site where they will set up the Saturn manufacturing complex and disappoint unsuccessful applicants.
As of yesterday, 18 governors, including Charles S. Robb of Virginia, Arch Moore of West Virginia and Mario M. Cuomo of New York, had met with GM officials in a bid to land the Saturn program for their states.
Four other governors, including Harry R. Hughes of Maryland, are scheduled to journey to Michigan this week to present their case.
"It looks to me like things may be getting away from us," one GM official said yesterday. "What's going to happen when we make the decision? . . . The potential people-disappointment is what's worrying us now. We sell cars to those people. We don't want them disappointed because they don't get that plant."
Some analysts speculated privately that GM probably knew where it was going to put the Saturn plant when the company announced the project in January. "GM never does anything without thinking three steps ahead of the game," one said.
Consumer activist Ralph Nader, who shares that belief, said GM is "engaged in a charade" to get more concessions -- tax breaks, for example -- from officials in the chosen location. GM officials denied that charge yesterday.
States reportedly at the top of GM's list include Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Kanas and Texas, industry sources said yesterday.