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Tips to Chrysler: Selling Neons (See Update)

"Tips to Chrysler" is a regular feature in which we propose obvious and credible actions which can increase Chrysler's sales and/or cut their costs, and hope against hope that someone at Chrysler is listening.

Chrysler seems to have given up on the poor, humble Neon. It's no surprise, since sales have been lackluster despite the Neon's value. The first generation rapidly took off, then just as rapidly sank as quality problems caught up with the little car. The second generation seems to have generated no excitement, even among Neon fans. Now, the Neon is scheduled to be replaced within three years by a version of the Mitsubishi Lancer.

Perhaps if Chrysler could actually sell the things, they'd make a third generation instead of consolidating with Mitsubishi.

We've analyzed media reports, owner reports, and anecdotal data, and come up with a thoroughly scientific analysis. If anyone at Chrysler is listening - and from what we've seen, only engineers and line employees, whose opinions don't seem to count any more, are - here are some things you could try, instead of sinking the company even further into oblivion.

Short term - how to sell the Neon we have now

  1. Full scale marketing binge on how you've overcome the Neon's problems. Now is the time to release all that warranty information - tell the newspapers and magazines and Web sites how you've tracked down the Neon's problems and fixed them, and how their repair rate is only a fraction of the first generation's.
  2. Fix the air conditioning. First, change the control so people stop driving around with the air conditioner compressor on all the time. Nobody else makes you move the fan knob one way for air conditioning, the other way for a vent. It's confusing and causes people to think their engine has no power, since they drive with the air on. Make the air conditioning a tad less powerful, too, because it robs the engine of too much power. I like it that way, but most people don't seem to understand the tradeoff.
  3. Get people to drive the Neon. Get reporters into Neons. Get people to drive them. Once people drive them, they will see the quality, the handling, the space, the driver-friendliness. But most people just dismiss it.
  4. Fix the acceleration - without raising the cost. The Neon has 133 horsepower, which is higher than most of its competitors, yet it's seen as being a slug. The zero to sixty times are fine, so it must be a matter of perception. Chrysler, as we'd expect, most likely stuck its head in the sand and blamed the fickle public. Why not attack the problem head on? The reason people find the Neon slow is because (a) the first gear is too high, so off-the-line acceleration is a little slow; and (b) you have to rev it higher to get to its power. The solution on the automatic is to change the shift points and lower the first gear. (For that matter, a four speed automatic, outsourced from Mitsubishi, wouldn't be a bad idea, either). Note: Chrysler has taken care of this, at least on automatic-transmission models.
  5. Fix the gas mileage - without raising the cost. Gas mileage dropped dramatically when the Neon went into its second generation, at least with the five-speed. The reason: overcompensation on the overdrive. The first generation had good mileage, but was sluggish at low highway speeds. So Chrysler engineers went overboard, so now it's snappy on the highway (again, with the five speed, which is what the car reviewers and opinion leaders drive!) but gets lousy mileage. So move the final gear ratio between its original place (too high) and its current place (too low). Toyota wouldn't let this continue for two years. Note: Chrysler has taken care of this, at least on automatic-transmission models.
  6. Change that dull front clip. The original Neon had a personality. The new one is too bland for Chrysler to sell. Yes, Toyota could move a million of 'em, but Toyota sells cars on the strength of undisputed quality and resale value. When you're Chrysler, with no reputation for quality outside of a small number of enthusiasts - like us - you have to work harder. Put the original front clip back on. Make it cute and distinctive again. That's why most people buy cars - for image, for looks. Why else would the New Beetle have been such a success? Why else would people who don't tow anything buy Explorers instead of Caravans? Note: Chrysler has taken care of this, though we don't care for their styling.
  7. Market the Neon's strengths. It's not cute any more. It's not zoomy. It is roomy. That's a selling point. It's comfortable. That's a selling point. It's cheap. That's a selling point. So sell the thing.
  8. Change the name. Neons have a lousy reputation. People remember the first generation's tendency to visit the dealers on a regular basis, and forget the first generation's speed and handling. So change the name. Go back to the original plan - make it a Plymouth. The only Plymouth. Wow, a single-car line. It worked in the 30s. It worked in the 40s. Only when Plymouth and Dodge started to span cheap-to-near-luxury did they get into trouble. So go back to basics, and watch people forget that this car with the new/old front clip was once a Neon. Most people don't pay enough attention to notice that Jaguars ride on Ford platforms, so they won't notice this move either. If Plymouth is too absurd, find some other name from the dustbin, one linked to quality or speed. You know, like Valiant. Fury. Scamp. Note: Chrysler has done this in Canada, calling it SX 2.0.
  9. Make a real R/T. This would be the most expensive short-term change: making a Road Runner type of Neon, stripped of all unnecessary weight and finally given that supercharger that's been rumored all these years. The Turbo I and Turbo II cars are still valued by their owners. A turbo Neon would be a killer on the street, boosting the car's reputation enough to overcome the perceptions of slow acceleration.

Taking these steps would greatly increase the Neon's sales for a minimal investment. Sure, it's against the Chrysler save-money-at-all-costs regime - the company would rather invest nothing and let sales drop off to nothing as well, until the Mitsubishi comes. But spending a relatively small sum could make the Neon a profit-maker again while we wait for the Lancer.

Long term

Let's assume for a moment that Chrysler actually takes the above steps and is surprised to find that sales shoot up. What next? How about derivatives - Derivatives. . Coupe. Pickup. Roadster. BMW does it. So did Chrysler way back when. Remember the Duster? How about those Aussie Utes? [Note: Subaru's just done this!]

Or, let's assume the more likely scenario - Chrysler doesn't do anything to save the Neon, just lets it fade away. Since that's the least profitable scenario, we can bet it'll be the one Chrysler adopts. What then? We have this great platform going to waste.

Waste not. Want not.

The Neon is actually large enough to compete in the next segment up. It could easily replace the Sebring Sedan, or even fit into a segment between the Dodge Lancer and Dodge Galant*, with a price similar to the Lancer and size similar to the Galant. (*Chrysler names for the Lancer and Galant have not yet been chosen.) Change the front and rear clips, make some minor modifications to the interior, stretch the body two inches, and make just a little more room in the engine bay, and you suddenly have a small family car. To illustrate this, let's look at two 2001 models:

Dodge Neon Toyota Camry
Cargo Volume 13.1 cubic feet 14.1 cubic feet
Front head room 39.1 inches 38.6 inches
Front leg room 42.4 niches 43.5 inches
Rear head room 36.8 inches 37.6 inches
Rear leg room 34.8 inches 35.5 inches
Width 67.4 inches 70.1 inches

Not much difference there. The Camry has less than one inch more rear leg room, about one inch more front leg room, about a half an inch more front head room, and 2.5 inches more width. Oh, and one more cubic foot of trunk space, which matters to some people but not everyone. The Neon really is large for its class - so maybe the solution is to set it up in a class by itself, competing ostensibly against other family cars instead of entry-level cars. Then it can be the sporty family car option, instead of the stodgy entry-level option.

Well, it's a thought, anyway. Especially since they would have some economies by keeping the Neon and PT Cruiser both going, given some shared parts. (Presumably the Neon would also gain some of those new PT suspension components for better handling and space utilization, and better economies of scale).

If you work at Chrysler, or know someone who does, can you pass this along to them?

http://www.allpar.com/ed/tips/neon.html

1. How to sell Neons - now - and with minimal investment May 2001
2. How to save lots of money on repairs, while increasing your reputation for quality June 6, 2001
4. How to increase customer retention and bring back "lost" customers July 2001
5. How to regain the faith and loyalty of enthusiastic boosters and customers August 2002
6. How to avoid incentives and still sell more cars September 2002

Written by write-at-allpar-com.

Feedback

Brandi Sanders wrote: I own a 98 Dodge Neon, and I can tell you I loved the first generation style. The body was so perfect and cute. Now this second generation looks like a spaceship, they aren't selling because people don't like the LOOK of them. You have teens who want something cute, fast and fun. Middle age people want something roomy and spacy for family and older people want something comfortable, but at the same time something that takes them back to a younger them. If you get rid of the Neon you will make a mistake, what you need to do is change some things... you could make the speaker system better in the sport models for the teens, add cup holders in the back of the sedans, more storage place in the console, the radio systems in them now are hard to learn, make them more simple. There are lots of things you can do other than give up on this model. ...

You have to think of consumer wants, what people buy. Right now people want SUVs and trucks because they hold their value. You have to change their minds, make them think that cars are just as good. The Neon has good leg room in the back, but it could have more, you could also put a v-6 engine in them so that they would perform better. Neons are good cars, they just need a little improvement.

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