Chrysler's 2011 Lineup: Clearly Better - But is That Good Enough?By Karl Brauer December 8, 2010
Chrysler Group LLC's 2011 product-line revamp is one of the most aggressive - and extensive -in the company's 85-year history. This is despite the fact that only two vehicles, the 2011 Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee, were completely redesigned for the 2011 model year.
Although both vehicles represent a substantial leap forward in terms of chassis design and drivetrain technology, it's Chrysler's effort throughout the remainder of its product portfolio that reflect Sergio Marchionne's clear interest in rebuilding these brands.
As Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of the Dodge brand, told Edmunds.com on the eve of the recent Los Angeles auto show, "We're trying to count on content versus incentives to drive sales. On average, we have about $2,000 more content on the vehicles than we did previously."
How does that $2,000 manifest itself? It shines in the 164 LEDs that make up the new 2011 Dodge Charger's distinctive new taillamps. It's obvious in the solid-mounted steering rack, upgraded suspension and radically-improved interior materials of the Dodge Journey. It's undeniable in the widened track and improved handling of the Avenger and Chrysler 200, in what amounted to a fundamental and expensive upgrade few models experience outside of a full redesign.
Even the tires have been upgraded on every vehicle, with higher-quality Michelins making up much of the new rolling stock.
Somewhere Between Refresh and Redesign
In terms of cost, the amount spent on the average 2011 model upgrade far outpaced a typical mid-cycle refresh. In discussing the upgrades, Gilles was quick to note, "A typical mid-cycle refresh is under $50 million per vehicle. We spent a lot more than that. Now they drive like new cars."
Powerful claims to be sure, but are they accurate or just typical corporate hype? Erin Riches, senior editor at sister publication Edmunds Inside Line, drove nearly all the 2011 models at a recent press event and confirms that, in general, the cars are vastly improved, both in terms of interior material as well as ride and handling characteristics.
"All of the Dodge and Chrysler models have a higher-quality look and feel inside the cabin. They also perform better in terms of acceleration and handling dynamics, though some models, like the Grand Caravan, still aren't up to the standards set by segment leaders," Riches concluded.
Can 'Better' Be Good Enough?
So whether you want to talk tires, drivetrain specs, platform improvements or on-the-road performance, it's clear Chrysler, and Fiat Auto, Chrysler's controlling partner, are living up the the promise to invest in the current product versus writing it off and waiting for the rollout of a generation of all-new, jointly developed models that doesn't begin for a year or more.
Good news, maybe, for Chrysler's near-term sales efforts, but is it good enough? Will such improvements entice disappointned and disenfranchised buyers back into showrooms to give Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge another chance?
That's easily the bigger challenge facing the company that is barely a year removed from bankruptcy and what some believed would be inevitable death.
If a company has the resources and the engineering talent it can fix product issues in relatively short order, as Chrysler's revamped 2011s seem to confirm. But changing longstanding (and often warranted) negative customer perception is a much loftier goal, one that can't be quickly overcome only with improved products and aggressive marketing efforts (though they certainly help).
Just ask General Motors Co.
Ralph Gilles: Dodge Takes A $40,000 Haircut
Gilles readily acknowledges the challenge he and his brand is facing. For example, in his opinion the new $40,000 Dodge Durango compares favorably to $80,000 luxury SUVs. "I dare you to buy a better SUV for forty grand. You can't find it. It's impossible. Show me an SUV under forty-thousand that has automatic cruise control. Blind-spot detection. Forward collision warning. It doesn't exist."
But when asked how many people know that, or would even believe it, Gilles admits, "I know that nobody knows that. As a matter of fact, people couldn't even conjure it."
Then he quickly follows with advice to the consumer. "Because I'm Dodge I take a $40,000 haircut. But you take advantage of my brand issue - be the smartest person in the market."
It makes for a compelling story. One that, for the first time in a long while, Chrysler's product can support.
Whether a heavily and effectively refreshed product line proves to be enough to substantively change perceptions - while also bridging Chrysler's troubled past - may depend on how many purchase intenders can be convinced to take advantage of Chrysler's expensive haircut.
Photos by Chrysler
1. The Dodge Charger, like many models in Chrysler's 4-brand lineup, is heavily revised for 2011. Charger prices were cut as well, substantially for some trims.
2. Sub-quality interiors long have been a Chrysler watchword, but the company aims to reverse the image with efforts like the upgraded makeover for the 2011 Journey crossover's interior.
3. Dodge Durango is all-new for 2011, using a unibody chassis (shared with the Jeep Grand Cherokee) for the first time, to the refinement benefit of both models.
4. Can't be a Dodge Durango, you say? It is, sporting an interior that's much more expensive than the buyer is paying for, according to Dodge's design boss.