2005 Chrysler 300C
2005 Chrysler 300C. Photo: DaimlerChrysler. Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

Vancouver, B.C. – Mark Norman, president of DaimlerChrysler Canada, is smiling, but he’s clearly annoyed by my question: Chrysler is a one-car company, right? And is that one car the 300 and its various derivatives, including the Dodge Magnum wagon, the Dodge Charger sedan and the coming Dodge Challenger.

“Maybe there is a one-car spotlight, but we are a multi-car manufacturer,” says the tallish, youthful-looking Norman. “We launched nine great products in the last year, but they have been overshadowed by one spectacular product.”

At which point Stuart Schorr, Chrysler’s top public relations guy in Canada, pipes in: “If I were to call us a one-car company I’d say it’s a minivan.”

Yeah, maybe. True, the Dodge Caravan is the second best-selling light truck in Canada, behind the Ford F-Series pickup. But the 300 is getting all the headlines. That irks the Chrysler people, of course, because they have also recently launched a new version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, a new Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible, a long-wheelbase version of the Jeep TJ, a very successful diesel version of the Jeep Liberty, a Chrysler Crossfire roadster, a restyled Dodge Dakota pickup and a whole range of high-performance SRT derivatives of existing models.

None are generating buzz like the 300 and, truthfully, most have been only modestly well received. Take the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited. It is all-new for 2005 in every way, yet Jeep is offering zero per cent financing to entice buyers into showrooms. Similarly, to goose sales of the also-new long-wheelbase TJ Unlimited Chrysler is tossing out a $3,000 incentive. And the Dodge Grand Caravan with its highly touted and eminently practical Stow ‘N Go fold-in-the-floor seating, is being pushed off dealer lots with the help of a $7,000 giveaway.

Buyers obviously are in a picky and demanding mood. As Mark Norman himself says, if your business is selling cars and trucks, “It’s a dogfight out there.”

2006 Dodge Charger RT
2006 Dodge Charger RT

2006 Dodge Magnum SRT-8
2006 Dodge Magnum SRT-8. Photos: DaimlerChrysler. Click images to enlarge

Unless you have a white-hot winner of a new model like the Chrysler 300 and the various derivatives based on the mechanical underpinnings Chrysler internally calls the LX platform – underpinnings made with major contributions from the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The Brampton, Ontario plant where the 300, Magnum and now Charger are built is running flat out on three shifts and maximum overtime just to keep up with demand. To entice buyers to the 300, Magnum and Charger, Chrysler doesn’t need to sweeten deals with cash-back handouts or cut-rate financing deals, either – pretty rare in today’s new vehicle marketplace.

Still, some could make the argument – and I’d be among them — that so far Chrysler remains just a one-hit wonder, even if that hit is the genius of not just a single car model, but of a whole platform wearing several different flashy bodies. That is a notion Norman, Schorr and everyone at the most senior levels of Chrysler hotly deny and apparently take offence at.

“People look at the 300 and say, ‘Man, this car has done it’,” chief operating officer Tom LaSorda recently told Automotive News. “But inside, we know that it is not the only winning vehicle.”

“On the inside maybe, but on the outside many Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles are wearing sales incentives which would indicate they are no where nearly as hot as the 300 and its spawn.”

Dodge Caliber concept
Dodge Caliber concept.

2006 Jeep Commander
2006 Jeep Commander. Photos: DaimlerChrysler. Click images to enlarge

If Chrysler remains a company riding the wave of essentially one giant hit, things won’t likely get any better for the Chrysler Group down the road, either – especially in Canada where a weakness in small cars won’t begin to be addressed until the vehicle based on the Dodge Caliber concept (unveiled in Geneva) hits showrooms in the next few months as a 2006 model to replace the current lacklustre SX 2.0/Neon. In terms of the overall market, Chrysler like other automakers must also cope with high oil prices which show no signs of abating, potentially volatile interest rates and those profit-draining sales incentives now clearly at unsustainable levels in the long term.

Those are just the current challenges for a company still working to recover from massive losses in the early part of this decade. Even if Chrysler is more than a one-hit wonder, things get tougher from here on out. Chrysler is promising 16 more new cars and trucks by the end of 2006, on top of the nine new vehicles introduced this past year. Analysts says Chrysler’s plans are grand, to say the least.

Future models from the Chrysler Group

2006

Jeep Commander – a stretched, seven-passenger SUV (sport-utility vehicle) based on the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Dodge Caliber – a five-door hatchback designed to replace the current Neon. To be sold both in North America and Europe.

Chrysler PT Cruiser – freshened for 2006, with an all-new design due for 2007 or 2008.

Dodge Charger – the Dodge version of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum wagon.

2007

Dodge Sequoia – a new compact SUV.

Jeep Compass – a new compact SUV for this model year or 2008.

Chrysler PT Cruiser – all-new for this year or 2008.

Jeep TJ (Wrangler in the U.S.) – the venerable descendent of the Willys gets a complete redesign.

Dodge Caravan/Chrysler Town & Country: the key minivan entry gets completely restyled and reengineered. The styling is being done by a team led by Canadian Ralph Gilles.

Chrysler Sebring/Dodge Stratus (U.S.) – key entries in the midsize car segment. European versions of this “D-segment” model are also likely to be built. Expect to see sedan, coupe and convertible versions.

Chrysler 300/Dodge Magnum – look for a modest freshening to keep them current.

Dodge or Chrysler hybrid – this gasoline/electric vehicle will most likely be a truck or crossover utility of some sort, based on the joint venture with General Motors. Also, it may arrive as a 2008 model.

Chrysler full-size SUV: reports indicate this seven-passenger SUV will be named the Aspen and will be based on the Dodge Durango mechanicals.

2008

Jeep Liberty – a likely redesign and reengineering for this serious smaller SUV.

Chrysler Pacifica – a restyling and some engineering upgrades are expected for this crossover utility wagon.

Jeep TJ – a derivative of some sort is expected to keep the line-up fresh and interesting.

Sources: Merrill Lynch, Automotive News, industry sources.

They include a big Jeep Commander with three rows of seats, a midsize car replacement for the Sebring with styling cues from the Chrysler Crossfire, a just-launched Charger muscle car, and that Neon replacement, the Caliber, which will take the shape of a wagon like the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix.

In addition, Jeep should get a small SUV based on the Compass concept vehicle shown at the Detroit auto show in 2002, as well as a new version of the open-top TJ. And then there is this new Dodge SUV based on the Jeep Liberty. It should hit the market by late 2006. Chrysler also is planning a modest update of the PT Cruiser for 2006.

At the same time, Chrysler is promising to match Toyota’s quality levels by 2007 while moving to reduce the number of basic vehicle architectures it uses from 12 to three by 2008. That should reduce costs and add flexibility to Chrysler’s remaining factories. It is not easy to chop platforms, however – and it is risky. When car companies share platforms across too many product lines, they often create a stable of look-alike products, and thus turn off customers.

LaSorda conceded as much in an interview earlier this year at Toronto’s Canadian International Auto Show, even as he talked about the positive but less tangible benefits of a hit model like the 300. “What it has done is given people a lot of pride and excitement,” he said. “One product can pull not only itself as being very successful, but it can pull in a whole suite of products.”

To a point. LaSorda also concedes that all successful new products must have high quality, outstanding performance (including competitive fuel economy) and above all styling that stands out from the pack of 60-80 new models now being launched regularly each year in North America by all the automakers combined.

Canadian Ralph Gilles knows this all too well. He’s the senior Chrysler designer responsible for overseeing the development of the 300, Magnum and Charger who is now working hard with his team to redesign Chrysler’s critically important minivans for the 2007 model year. “Style is your weapon in this competitive environment,” says Gilles.

Gilles, like his Chrysler colleagues, is reluctant to go down the “one hit wonder” road. Instead, he suggests the success of the 300 has helped the design team at Chrysler, and in fact everyone at the American division of this German-owned company, rediscover the styling magic that so set Chrysler apart from its rivals during most of the 1990s. “Our products are American — they’re truly American,” says Gilles. “We’re not trying to be European. We’re being ourselves.”

Jeep Compass concept
Jeep Compass concept. Photo: DaimlerChrysler. Click image to enlarge

And it’s not a bad thing to have a new model, the 300, which has been named car of the year by a raft of publications and associations – to have a car as apparently popular with hip-hop youth as it is middle aged Calgary oil consultants like David Gibson, who was among the very first Canadians to take delivery of a 300. As he puts it, “Chrysler finally found the right mix of horsepower and ride. It’s basically a car with a Mercedes-Benz frame and good old American muscle, to say the least.”

So the basic formula seems to be in place for Chrysler to transcend one-hit wonder status to full-scale comeback kid. If Chrysler’s return is to be lasting, however, future models must have bold, unapologetic “American” designs and they will ride on sharp-handling platforms with at least some borrowed parts and expertise from Mercedes-Benz. They must also be priced properly (Chrysler officials argue, for example, that the pricing of the 300 has redefined the luxury car segment) and the quality must be Toyota-like bullet-proof by no later than 2007.

But even if Chrysler gets all those things right, there is still the competition to consider. At the Toronto car show earlier this year, LaSorda conceded that there is room for only so many new models capable of hitting the “sweet spots” in the marketplace during any one period. “If someone gets a hot one (product), it’s tough on us and vice versa,” he said.

Dodge Challenger

In a bid to take on the successful Ford Mustang, Dodge plans to resurrect the famous Challenger nameplate with a two-door version of the Hemi-powered muscle car that was a favourite with enthusiasts in the early 1970s, several sources have reported.

According to the Detroit News, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal and others, the next Challenger is expected as a 2009 model and it will ride on the LX large car platform currently serving as the mechanical basis for the Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum and Dodge Charger.

“It is a two-door, essentially a competitor for the Mustang,” Catherine Madden, a production analyst for industry research group Global Insight, told the News. “They are really excited about it.”

Chrysler officials routinely decline to comment on future products, especially ones so far down the road. And given that Chrysler already has a very full product pipeline of new models due through 2009, adding a Challenger to the line-up would be a significant stretch.

Still, with the recent success of the restyled Mustang, it seems likely Chrysler is considering a new Challenger. After all, the 1970-74 Challenger competed against the Mustang, as well as the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Mercury Cougar and AMC Javelin. Popular with muscle car fanatics, the Challenger was forever enshrined as a cult classic thanks to the success of the movie “Vanishing Point.”

Essentially a car chase across the desert, the movie stars Barry Newman as an amphetamine-swilling Kowalski, a taciturn ex-race car driver who bets he can drive a new Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours. His race across the American west is chronicled by Super Soul, a blind disc jockey played by Cleavon Little whose non-stop reports of Kowalski’s progress at eluding law enforcement turns the driver into a kind of folk hero.

As car chase movies go, this is among the very best. No car nut’s movie collection is complete without it.

Obviously Chrysler would like to have more than one clear-cut grand slam product among the coming 16 new models to be introduced by 2007. The Neon replacement, that is the five-door Caliber, will be critically important for Canada where compact and subcompact cars account for more than 40 per cent of the market.

On a North American-wide scale even more crucial will be the replacements for the Chrysler Sebring, Dodge Stratus (sold in the U.S.) and PT Cruiser. All will ride on a new midsize (or D-segment) platform and are part of a bigger product onslaught being funded by a five-year, $30 billion capital investment in product development.

“Chrysler’s biggest challenge is the Sebring and Stratus replacements,” Jim Sanfilippo, executive vice president of AMCI, an automotive consulting firm in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., recently told Automotive News. “It’s a high hurdle. They will wade right into the pack. The question is what kind of solution they will bring and what thinking they bring to that segment.”

It’s a very tough segment, too. The leading models include the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Honda and Toyota sell about 400,000 of each model every year, so the profit and volume potential is enormous.

For DaimlerChrysler Canada’s Norman, it’s a question of cadence for the future product program. That is, a steady and plentiful supply of new models arriving in 2006, 2007 and beyond will keep the momentum started by the 300 continuing to the end of this decade. “In a crowded market we see product is king,” he says. “But Chrysler is a different company than it was six years ago. The elements of a winning formula are in place.”

And the power child for that formula is the 300. Now is it reproducible?

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