Chrysler Product Onslaught: Can 'Refreshes' Do the Trick?By Bill Visnic September 16, 2010
Last November, Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler Group LLC chief executive, said it would happen: under new management by partial owner Fiat Group, Chrysler's products would undergo a rapid revitalization to undo the neglect the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep model ranges suffered at the hands of prior owners Cerberus Capital Group LLC and Daimler AG.
Now Chrysler is revealing an onslaught of revised models to back up Marchionne's ambition to yank Chrysler's global sales from 1,317,623 in 2009 to 2.8 million by 2014. Much of the growth must come from the U.S., although in the five-year business plan Marchionne and other Chrysler executives outlined in November, Chrysler's Jeep brand, in particular, was projected to markedly increase sales abroad.
So while there's definitely more product action at Chrysler this year compared with its past few, with one exception, the changes are literally and figuratively mostly skin deep: there are all-new versions of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango SUVs and substantial remakes of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger large cars, but Chrysler's "new" 2011 models - including its entries in the vital midsize-sedan segment - mostly are the same stuff in more cosmetically palatable packages.
The test will be whether that's enough - particularly in the current jittery auto-sales environment - to help Chrysler pick itself up by the bootstraps and make progress toward becoming not only fully competitive but also once again privately owned.
Chrysler dealers shown some of the new wares reportedly were impressed, but given what they've had to peddle for the past few years, what other reaction could be expected?
To a big splash, Chrysler this week unveiled "teaser" images of the Chrysler 200, the midsize sedan that takes over from the dismal Sebring lineup. Chrysler's renaming of the car probably is wise and seems to have convinced some that the 200 is an all-new car, but it more like an advance on what typically is known in the industry as a "refresh."
Chrysler's own designation for the 200 from its business-plan documents last year refers to its transformation as a "major modification-plus ." There is some new sheetmetal, particularly the front and rear "caps," but the 200 sits on the the underwhelming bones of the Sebring. What may be most important to everyday buyers is that the 200's interior (and presumably that of its Dodge Avenger sister ship) has been heavily reengineered with a focus on improved materials.
Most notable - and what helps give substance to what otherwise could be passed off as a facelift - is the option of fitting the 200 with Chrysler's new Pentastar 3.6-liter DOHC V6, which made its first appearance earlier this year in the totally new Jeep Grand Cherokee. The 283-horsepower Pentastar should be a substantial upgrade over the tired single-overhead-cam 3.5-liter V6, which leaves the world almost 50 horsepower in arrears to the new V6.
The 200's base engine remains the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder of the previous car, although a new 6-speed automatic transmission is optional to replace the base car's 4-speed autobox.
Through August, the Sebring's sales were up 81 percent compared with like-2009, but it is widely believed the increase is largely attributable to a vast proportion of fleet sales, so it will be critical for the 2011 200 model to make a convincing statement to retail customers.
The 2011 Town & Country minivan qualified for the major-modification-plus business-plan designation, with the minivan also wearing a facelift and substantially revised interior, plus the much-needed availability of the Pentastar V6 to replace the thoroughly obsolete 3.3-liter and 3.8-liter overhead-valve V6s. Yes, overhead-valve. The new Pentastar makes an incredible 86 horsepower more than the outgoing 3.8-liter V6 - a vigorous 44 percent improvement. Expect the same changes for the Dodge Grand Caravan, too.
A redesigned 300C large car also is supposed to break cover this year, one with totally new sheetmetal and the Hemi 5.7-liter V8 in addition to the Pentastar. A preproduction version of the vehicle was shown to media and analysts last year that displayed a convincing update of the current 300C's masculine and extroverted lines.
Along with the Grand Cherokee, the 300 will be the only other substantively new model for Chrysler this year, however - and will be the only newish models the brand has to show until the projected appearance of an all-new compact car, based on Fiat Group underpinnings, in the 2012 calendar year.
The Grand Cherokee is all-new and was launched last month, so sales results have yet to begin giving an indication of its early market reception.
The Patriot and Compass, based on the architecture of the Caliber compact car, have new interiors, which has to be an improvement because the old innards couldn't have been more dismal. There's a facelift that includes changes to the front and rear caps and an increase in ride height for 4-wheel-drive models to make them look less like the cars they are and more like Jeeps.
Chrysler so far released images only of the Patriot, but both models also will enjoy suspension and steering retunings to improve ride and handling, another area that needed help.
The brand-defining Wrangler lineup, meanwhile, gets a totally new interior this year prior to a larger overhaul next year that purportedly is to include a diesel engine option and a fuel-saving start-stop system. The brand then is in neutral until the 2013 calendar year, when an all-new compact crossover positioned below the Patriot/Compass is introduced. Also due that year is the merging of the Patriot and Compass to a single model, plus an all-new variant of the Liberty.
A refresh for the Liberty described in Chrysler's November overview of its five-year business plan seemingly has been abandoned for this year.
Jeep sold about a half-million units globally in 2008 and Chrysler's vision has that number extending to 800,000 by 2014.
The all-new 2011 Durango brings Chrysler back into the 3-row SUV market, along with its platform-mate, the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
There's also an all-new Dodge Charger sedan, which will share with the Chrysler 300 all of the changes to the company's large-car architecture, including what some insiders have called demonstrably more-upmarket interior materials.
If the "major modification" for the Journey crossover as described in the November business plan is still in place, Chrysler had yet to reveal details.
Chrysler's newly designated Ram brand already had its major effort this year with the all-new Ram Heavy Duty pickup, a crucial player in what has become in recent years a heavily contested market segment with outsized investments from all of the Detroit manufacturers. Only the recession and its resultant impact on commercial construction activity has blunted the impact of new medium-duty pickups from Chrysler, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.
The near-term question for the Ram lineup centers on an all-new midsize pickup foreshadowed in the November business-plan outline as a "unibody product." It's no secret the midsize pickup segment has tanked and was tanking even before the recession began and one of the industry's more thought-provoking questions is what the automaker response will be to a segment that's seen two-thirds of its once-substantial volume disintegrate in the last decade.
Less-rugged pickups leveraging existing investment in car-based structures might be one answer, a solution Chrysler presumably already has reached for the next-generation replacement for the Dakota. Whether Chrysler has decided on that course should be known sometime next year, but then the Ram brand goes dark except for light-commercial vans - think rivals for the Ford Transit - scheduled for introduction in the 2012 calendar year.
Most interesting will be to see whether Marchionne and Chrysler stay on message regarding the previous commitment to extend Ram brand sales by almost 50 percent, from the roughly 280,000 in 2009 to 415,000 units by 2014.
Although that forecast was presented during the nadir of the recession, Chrysler planners may have been mistakenly relying, like the rest of the nation, on a recovery that would be in full swing by this time. Instead, going the final quarter of 2010, the broad economic recovery is stunted and the auto-industry's climb from its worse sales year in decades has been anything but resolute.
Graphics by Mark Holthoff
Photos by Chrysler
1. "Teaser" image of the grille of the new Chrysler 200 sedan
2. All-new Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 is a big upgrade over Chrysler's outmoded 6-cylinder engines
3. 2011 Jeep Patriot
4. Revised interior of 2011 Jeep Patriot
5. 2011 Jeep Wrangler
6. Restyled interior for 2011 Wrangler