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GM's new product chief to focus on quality, faster development

The new chief of product development holds what is arguably the most important job at General Motors: coming up with cars and trucks that people want.

Mary Barra's list includes a few extra goals: Make the stuff faster, and raise its quality.

Barra, a 30-year veteran of the company, was named head of global product development Thursday. She succeeds Vice Chairman Tom Stephens who was moved aside after GM's CEO grew unhappy over the speed with which new vehicles reached the market.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Barra said she will look for ways to more efficiently run a giant operation that includes 36,000 people across the globe. She also wants vehicles with more compelling exterior designs, as well as the latest technology, and promises to work with manufacturing and parts supply companies to boost quality.

Barra wouldn't say how much time she would like to shave from product development, which typically takes four or five years.

With other automakers cranking out new models faster and faster, GM must respond with fresh cars and trucks because older models don't sell as well as those with the latest designs and gadgets.

The typical five-year wait for new models probably is too long, but GM could do significant updates in a much shorter period, said Rebecca Lindland, director of automotive research with consulting firm IHS Automotive.

"Everybody is going to be coming to market with products sooner," she said. "With technology being more and more integrated into a vehicle, you can be obsolete before you know it."

Dan Akerson, GM's new chairman and CEO, told reporters last week that the company's 2009 bankruptcy put it a year behind in vehicle development, and he wanted to bring out new cars and trucks faster. He said in a statement that Barra will bring a "fresh perspective" to the critically important job.

Bankruptcy sidetracked new pickup trucks, among GM's top-selling vehicles, and it delayed a replacement for the aging Chevrolet Impala large sedan.

Barra, 49, has been vice president of global human resources since 2009, helping the company through management turmoil that included four chief executives in less than two years. She also served as a plant manager and held a number of engineering and management posts, even heading internal communications.

Longtime GM executives have been criticized for moving too slowly in the company's rule-heavy culture. Barra said her long career at GM will be an asset.

"I have a rich vehicle background, and I know the company," she said. "I know what works. I know what doesn't work."

In her new post, Barra will manage the company's global alliances, such as those in China and South Korea. She will oversee a pipeline of cars and trucks for GM's 11 global brands, including Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac in the United States.

Barra said boosting quality is part of her mandate. GM's reliability has been spotty in the past, but it showed the biggest improvement of any automaker in last year's Consumer Reports magazine survey.

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