Chrysler - The Comeback Kid?
It's got RWD, 4 doors, a 340HP V8, fresh styling, and 18-inch wheels. Sounds like the newest Bavarian contender to be imported into the sport-sedan market, right? Wrong. Well, sort of. Let me explain. Of course, we are talking about the new Chrysler 300/300C (The "C" denotes the 340HP Hemi powered model), Chrysler's recent bid to wrestle itself from its eternal placement at the bottom of the big three domestic automakers. How has this effort turned out for Chrysler? Well, for the first time in a long time, the American division of DaimlerChrysler is turning a healthy profit. How healthy, you ask? Well, according to second quarter sales figures, their recent profits offset some financial problems from the Mercedes division (which carried the whole company while Chrysler hemoraged) and have stayed out of the "red" for four consecutive quarters.
With a sales history that isn't quite what you'd call consistent, this is certainly a welcome influx of cash. Chrysler has a history of introducing big selling cars and trucks, then letting them languish and become uncompetitive in a fast moving industry that doesn't reward manufacturers who rest so easily on their laurels. The K-car, introduced in 1981, is a good example of this behavior. It lasted until the early 90s and was an extremely flexible, profitable vehicle for Chrysler. It spawned the famed Minivan and was everything from a 2-door coupe to a 5-door hatch. However, by 1991, when the LH cars (Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde and Dodge Vision) were introduced, the basic architecture had changed very little, and it was sorely obvious that the unassuming little K-car was no longer competitive in the market - especially against the fast developing imports. With the demise of the K-car came the end of Chrysler's golden period during the 80's. A few wins in the early 90s with the LH cars, Jeep Grand Cherokee and the new Ram were quickly offset by high warranty repair costs, and slow-selling models and redesigns (like the second generation of the LH cars). While still looking good on paper, death was looming for Chrysler in 1997, the year rumors started to fly about Chrysler possibly merging with someone. Then, in 1998, a surprise merger between Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corp. promised a resurgence of the Chrysler brand. However, that powerhouse manufacturer didn't materialize right away. Internal turmoil and a power struggle in the executive levels of the new merger caused the company to sit idle and people started to question whether this marriage would ever work out.
Industry observers said the problem was that all of the key people who made Chrysler thrive, like Bob Lutz, Bob Eaton, Francois Castaing and others had jumped ship, taking the energy and ideas with them. Chrysler slowly moved toward the dire straights to which it was already headed. Rumors of DCX dropping Chrysler, or selling the prized Jeep brand to GM to get some cash started to float.
Of course, as we can see now, there was no reason to doubt the potential of this new company. Compared with the dark years for Chrysler that came at the close of the 1990's, the company has done an about face, and is making considerable headway in both sales and profit margin. Rebounding from losses of more than $1 Billion just over a year ago, second quarter reports show an operating profit of $614 Million and they have maintained their domestic market share at a time when both GM and Ford have seen decreases in their shares. They actually saw a rebound in the recent quarter after slipping a few points, allowing Toyota to briefly assume the number three position in the US. The stars of this recent resurgence, of course, are the cars that have been produced from this relationship.
The first vehicle out of the gate to bear Chrysler's new direction in design philosophy and execution was this crossover. Heavily influenced by Mercedes design, the Pacifica was like no other vehicle offered in the Chrysler lineup. It has excellent fit and finish, luxurious appointments and a material selection that put all previous Chrysler models to shame. In short, it was the beginning of a new era for the company and a signal that the much-heralded merger was finally flexing its muscles. Long-term Pacifica tests at the major car magazines praise its material content and quality even after harsh testing in bad weather and endurance runs across large swaths of the country. The only complaint is the engine, which they find underpowered for the mass of the Pacifica.
Early sales issues were due to Chrysler only coming out with higher content Pacificas that people felt were overpriced. They remedied this with more base models, and Chrysler vowed not to make such a mistake again, and would provide the market with an appropriate amount of lower-end versions of each model.
Next came this sports coupe, which can trace its beginnings to the Mercedes SLK 320 (first generation). In fact, there isn't much the Crossfire and SLK don't share. Right down to the 3.2L V6, in normally aspirated and supercharged versions. While the two cars share a lot mechanically, there is one rather large aspect they don't share other than a retractable hard top - the price. The Crossfire is priced well below the SLK, making for an excellent value. You get what is essentially a German sports coupe at a huge discount. You might be wondering why the company would offer up the current SLK platform to produce this lower priced alternative, wouldn't it be like shooting yourself in the foot? Well, with the redesigned 2005 SLK on the way, the current SLK essentially becomes the last generation platform. While the current platform is a solid, proven performer, the redesigned platform will create a difference between the Chrysler and Mercedes Coupe come 2005. So, the Crossfire will pretty much be the recipient of the SLK's leftovers, right? Well, that's not such a bad thing if you've ever driven a current SLK. If there ever were good leftovers, Mercedes' leftovers would certainly qualify.
This was to be the bread and butter car, the car that would ensure Chrysler's financial future. Rest assured, the 300 has exceeded most everybody's expectations - including Chrysler's own. Replacing the 300M, LHS and Concorde, there is a sea of difference between the new 300 and those now defunct models. Cab forward is now dead, for one, and the new 300 marks a return to RWD for Chrysler's mainstream sedans. Running the price point gamut, the 300 can be configured to compete with the V6 Accords of the world, while also having the ability to effectively go head to head with luxury cars like the Acura TL, Infiniti G35, Cadillac CTS and Lincoln LS when optioned up. The design of the new 300 is based heavily on the running gear of the Mercedes E-Class, what with the autobahn-tested multi-link rear suspension, Mercedes-sourced 5-Speed automatic, and optional AWD (which is related to Mercedes's 4Matic system). The interior is classy and refined, while not being too gaudy, and the excellent fit and finish is indicative of the company's German influence. The originality and boldness of the new design has resonated with consumers as well. This past May alone, 12,500 Chrysler 300s were sold. To put this figure in perspective, last year's 300M needed five months to sell 17,000 units - obviously the new 300 is a qualified success.
The Final Review
With 25 new vehicle launches planned before the end of 2006, all Chrysler Corp. brands will benefit from the Bavarian connection. The Dodge Magnum - the mechanical twin of the Chrysler 300 - should be another sales success. With the 300 positioned up-market, the Magnum represents an even less expensive alternative to the swanky 300 while keeping its raw performance intact. The newly redesigned Dodge Durango has been selling well, too. With all the recent sales success and Chrysler being flush with cash, there's speculation that the concept ME Four-Twelve super car might even make it to production. With 850HP and 850 lb-ft of torque, it should be one of the quickest production vehicles in the world. This means the ME would best Chrysler's own Dodge Viper, of course at a greater price of entry. This positioning makes sense though, since the future plan of the corporation is to return the Chrysler brand back to it's up-market status, much like what Ford has done with Lincoln and GM has done with Cadillac. In general, it looks like it might be the beginning of another golden era for Chrysler Corp. We'll just have to wait and see if it was meant to last. All Chrysler has to do is keep it's lineup fresh and exciting to continue to bring new consumers into the fold. Judging from past history though, this might easier said than done for Chrysler.