New Porsche U.S. CEO Must Hit the Ground Running

Detlev von Platen, the new president and CEO of Porsche Cars North America Inc., has his work cut out for him, after 10 years in the friendly confines of Porsche France, capped by record sales for the French market in 2007 of 2,863 Porsches.

He’s now expected to sell that many cars in a good month in the U.S. market. Meanwhile, U.S. gas prices are seemingly headed toward $4 per gallon, the U.S. economy is staggering, and PSHG_p.DEis about to charge into unknown territory, offering its first-ever, four-door sedan, the Panamera, starting in the fall of 2009.

“I have to learn to multiply everything by ten,” said von Platen, at a press introduction here for the Cayenne GTS, a sportier, more-powerful variant of the Porsche Cayenne SUV.

“It’s ten times more volume (in the U.S. than France), and ten times the number of dealers. Unfortunately, they do not multiply my salary by ten, but I will have to work on that,” he joked.

Von Platen, 44, worked for BMW for close to a decade before joining Porsche in 1997. He was born and brought up in France, but his parents are German, he said. “That explains why a guy with a German name like mine has such a heavy French accent,” he said.

Von Platen replaced Peter Schwartzenbauer as head of Atlanta-based Porsche Cars North America effective April 1, after Schwartzenbauer left Porsche to become head of worldwide sales and marketing for Audi AG.

Porsche’s last big product gamble was its first-ever SUV, the Cayenne, which debuted in 2003. It paid off, even though purists thought Porsche should stick exclusively to small sports cars.

Thanks to the Cayenne, Porsche Cars North America last year avoided the downturn in U.S. auto sales. The Cayenne continues to sell well, but Porsche's U.S. sales overall are down so far this year. Through April, Porsche’s U.S. sales for 2008 were down 14.3% from the year-ago period, to 9,640.

The Cayenne last year got a new family of fuel-injected, V-6 and V-8 engines. They helped boost U.S. Cayenne sales to 12,547 in 2007, an increase of 18.7% versus 2006. Porsche’s total U.S. sales last year were 34,693, up 1.4%, according to AutoData Corp.

The new engines are bigger and more powerful than the engines they replaced, but get about 15% better gas mileage. However, even with the improved engines, the base, V-6-powered Cayenne still gets only 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway, by EPA estimate. The Cayenne GTS, with a lowered suspension and a 4.8-liter V-8, gets 11 mpg city/17 mpg highway. Porsche has confirmed a gasoline-electric hybrid Cayenne is in the product pipeline for about two years from now.

“We didn’t discover fuel efficiency yesterday. We’ve been working many years on it,” von Platen said. “And not just Porsche, there have been a lot of dollars and euros spent in the entire automotive industry on fuel efficiency, but the perception is, the auto industry isn’t doing anything,” he said.

That’s a perception von Platen and Porsche hope to improve, by the time the Panamera arrives next year.

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