Today it may be Chrysler dealers crying over the state of the company's new products, but tomorrow it could be customers.
That's according to Ralph Gilles, chief of design and CEO of Dodge, who said that he actually hopes adults of all genders "will have tears running from their eyes" after they get a look at the new Chrysler 300, slated to debut this December.
Gilles made his comments at the recent Chicago Auto Show, where he showed teaser images of the 2011 300 and its platform-mate, the Dodge Charger, also set to launch in December. Intriguingly, the next 300 shows LED running lights, a design cue reminiscent of what Audi has been doing with its current headlight treatments. It's a small thing, but I like the advanced thinking here and sometimes those small things can have a big impact on customers.
As for the upcoming Charger, Gilles emphasized it would bring a return to the more streamlined shape of the 1999 Charger concept, marking a big departure from the current model's chunky, slightly retro design approach.
Now, it's safe to say that Mr. Gilles was talking about tears of joy when discussing the new 300, which would certainly be a nice change of pace for the American division of Fiat. Chrysler has been fighting a tough battle on the sales front recently, primarily because its aging products are falling further and further behind the competition as every day goes by.
But as tough as that battle has been, it's been producing results. The company was able to limit its sales drop to just 8 percent in January, which is an impressive feat, all things considered.
The Chrysler Sebring continued its counter-intuitive renaissance, with its third consecutive months of steadily growing sales increases: The sedan was up 5 percent in November, 24 percent in December and then 85 percent in January. Its counterpart, the Dodge Avenger, has a seven-month winning streak of its own and saw a 44 percent sales rise in January.
In other words, there's obviously still demand for a midsize product for Chrysler, and that demand is going to be further fueled by at least some former Toyota Camry intenders. The Sebring and Avenger are due for a significant refreshing before the year is out '” including a possible name change for the Sebring '” and that should also attract more customers, especially if they get some of Fiat's advanced "MultiAir" engine technology under the hood.
The MultiAir system optimizes the operation of an engine's valves to help improve power and fuel efficiency while reducing emissions. If all goes well, MultiAir engines will be Chrysler's answer to the Ford EcoBoost system and would represent a key differentiator in the marketplace for Chrysler.
The company already announced a heavy investment in its factory in Dundee, Mich., to start producing the engines, which are slated to include both four- and six-cylinder versions, along with a turbocharged V6. Exactly when one of these powerplants will get into a new Sebring/Avenger is still up in the air, but it's certain that the initial product, a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, is headed for the Fiat 500 '” which is now expected to go on sale in the U.S. before the end of the year.
The 500 originally wasn't due to reach our shores before early 2011, but its American release has been pulled up to help U.S. dealers. A highly anticipated car like the 500 was already going to attract customers who normally bought from Chrysler's competition, and that effect will be multiplied by the fallout from the Toyota Recallathon.
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, to launch this spring, is another Chrysler product poised to benefit from changes to the industry. For example, the redesigned Grand Cherokee will face significant challenges as a big, relatively thirsty SUV, but what it won't face is a new body-on-frame Ford Explorer.
True, the Jeep itself uses unibody construction, but no one is going to doubt its off-road bona fides. On the other hand, despite its "real truck" roots, even the current Explorer couldn't match the Grand Cherokee on the Rubicon Trail. The disparity between the 2011 models' abilities should be even greater since the next Explorer will be more of a crossover. That, as I mentioned in yesterday's column, should help Jeep consolidate its hold on customers who won't be satisfied with soft-roaders.
And so should the 2011 Jeep Wrangler. Next year will mark 70 years of Wrangler production, and Chrysler is planning to do some big-time celebrating. This will include selling a range of freshened, special edition Wranglers, and the entire company should be able to leverage the buzz to, again, get more customers into dealer showrooms.
At this stage in the game, Chrysler is fast-approaching a return to relevancy in the U.S. market. The Grand Cherokee is a just a few months away, and that should mark the opening of the product floodgates for the company.
Once that happens, it just may be Chrysler's rivals who are doing the crying.