Here's what we have our eye on today:
- The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group that represents a dozen automakers including the Detroit Three and Toyota, is gearing up to fight provisions in a $109 billion, two-year highway bill that moved to the U.S. House of Representatives after Senate approval, The Detroit News reports. The bill would expand current fines for mismanaged recalls to $250 million, nearly 15 times the current $17 million penalty ceiling — "well out of proportion and unfairly punitive," Alliance President Mitch Bainwol said, on grounds that civil penalties for "similarly situated" consumer-product companies are far lower. The Senate bill also calls for new safety provisions like backseat seat-belt reminders, which the Alliance opposes because of development complexity — even though studies show unbuckled backseat passengers substantially increase the risk of injury or death to themselves and belted occupants in front of them.
- On the heels of Nissan's plans to revive Datsun in emerging markets, Toyota President Akio Toyoda told reporters in Tokyo the automaker has no plans to make ultra-cheap cars, Automotive News reports. Toyota's cheapest cars include the Etios, built for India. At current exchange rates, it starts around $7,800 — far above bargain-basement Indian offerings like the Tata Nano.
- J.D. Power & Associates predicts that March new-car sales will rise 6% over year-ago levels as shoppers drive retail demand, Reuters reports. Barring any sky-high gas spikes from Iran closing oil passageways in the Persian Gulf, J.D. Power expects robust auto sales for the rest of the year. Sales in February jumped 16% to reach an annualized rate of 15.1 million, the highest since February 2008. J.D. Power and its forecasting arm, LMC Automotive, expect March's annualized sales rate to hit 14.1 million.
- Volkswagen plans to hire another 800 employees at its plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., the automaker said today. Citing strong demand for the Passat, which VW builds in Chattanooga, Volkswagen said total additional hiring in 2012 comes to 1,000, on top of the plant's 2,700 current employees.
- In a bid to revive its U.S. products — sales dipped 7% in 2011 — Honda is hiring more American managers, Bloomberg News reports. The automaker built more cars in the U.S. than in Japan last year, and nearly matched production between the two regions in 2010. North American Chief Operating Officer Tetsuo Iwamura, the automaker's second-highest executive, will direct a seven-member board that includes three Americans — the first time Americans have ever ranked so high, Bloomberg notes. He'll also be based in California, not Tokyo.
- BMW's Mini division reached its 10th year in the U.S. today. Mini says it now accounts for 20% of all BMW Group sales, with six variants of the Cooper. The brand sells cars through 112 dealers, up from 66 in 2002. Mini expects to open another 125 showrooms over the next two years.