1997 was a very good year for Chrysler Corporation. The reviewers were nearly unanimous in their praise for the full lineup of vehicles, including the new mid-sized J cars, the little Neon, the minivans, and the trucks. The brand new Dakota debuted for the 1997 model year, with mini-Ram styling, and sales were satisfyingly high. There were few storm clouds on the horizon; customer service was an issue that was being addressed, at both dealer and corporate levels, and Chrysler enjoyed customer loyalty as well as new-customer conquests. It seemed that the sky was sunny and clear as Chrysler showed that an American company could still make profitable small cars — and beat the Europeans on their home turf as the Viper whipped Ferraris and Porsches on the track.
Chrysler had 121,000 employees around the world, with around 105,000 in the US and around 15,000 in Canada. The most famous were the “dream team,” including Bob Eaton and Bob Lutz, Tom Stallkamp (president), Gary Valade (CFO), Tom Gale (Product), James Holden (Sales and Marketing), Tom Sidlik (Procurement), F.J. Ewasyshyn (Advance Manufacturing Engineering), and John Herlitz (design). The company cleared $61 billion in revenues for 1997, slightly less than in 1996 but far more than 1995’s $53 billion. Net profit in 1997 was $2.8 billion; in 1996, $3.5 billion; in 1995, $2 billion. The last loss had been in 1993, with $2.6 billion lost.
Chrysler’s car market share in 1997 was down somewhat from 1996, at 8.9% (vs 9.7%), partly due to the introduction of the 1998 LH series late in the year. Truck market share, at 21.7%, was down somewhat from 1996, but still above 1993-95. (The car/truck balance was not as truck-biased as it seems, since minivans are classified as trucks.)
The company sold 2,304,000 cars and trucks in 1997 - twice as many trucks as cars (“trucks” included minivans and Jeeps.) Only 20% of sales were outside the United States, and most of those went to Canada.
Cars were selling briskly within the United States. The Neon sold as a Dodge (121,854) and a Plymouth (86,798); the LH sold as an Intrepid (118,537), Concorde (38,772), Vision (5,146), and the big LHS (30,189). The J-cars sold as the Stratus (99,040), Cirrus (31,549), and Breeze (72,499); Plymouth was selling nearly as well as Dodge when the two competed. The Mitsubishi-sourced Sebring coupe ran to 35,365 units; the convertible, based on the Cirrus, ran to 53,054. Finally, 10,206 Eagle Talons (Mitsubishi-sourced), 1,458 Vipers, and 120 Prowlers were sold in the U.S.
In bigger vehicles, minivans were flying off the shelf, with 285,736 Caravans joining 156,056 Voyagers and 76,653 Town & Countrys in driveways. The Ram was a huge seller, with 350,257 finding homes; the Grand Cherokee nearly matched Caravan sales with 260,875 being sold in 1997 (probably at higher margins). Cherokees were selling modesly well (130,041) while Wranglers were doing well for a niche vehicle (just under 82,000). The Dakota was popular wtih 132,000 sold; the Durango was finding a following, on the market for just three months, two of which had over 10,000 sales. Finally, the big vans were selling modestly, with over 56,000 of the vans and 17,372 wagons moving off the lots.
The big product news for “traditional Chrysler” in 1997 was the second-generation Dodge Dakota introduction, but more people may have been watching the dawn of the Viper Roadster, with January production, and the hot new Plymouth Prowler. 1997 may have been a bad sales year for Plymouth — which had been having bad sales years since the “hotness” wore off the Duster — but the Prowler showed a new corporate interest in the brand, and gave it an exciting new face. Had things gone as planned, a new version of the Neon called the PT (Plymouth Truck) Cruiser would have been shown in 1998 or 1999 — but things did not go as planned. 1997 was the last full year of the independent, profitable Chrysler Corporation that rode on top of the world; the 1997 Annual Report would be Chrysler’s last.
Much more significant, perhaps, was the launch of a redesigned Jeep Wrangler, which had skipped the 1996 model year. The Jeep Wrangler was completely redesigned for 1997, and was on its way to becoming a major sales force — despite having been a niche vehicle for decades. The XJ/ZJ link coil suspension (Cherokee/Grand Cherokee) was adapted to it for better on and off road performance. The new “TJ” Wrangler’s diagonal articulation was greater than that of the YJ at about 7 inches (178 mm), making it roughly as off-road ready as CJ. Power was boosted, air conditioning made optional across the line, and creature comforts increased.
As for the corporate side: in 1997, they set up an IPO of its Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, which included Thrifty, and sold Pentastar Electronics, a military test equipment maker, to focus on its cars. During 1997, Chrysler announced the discontinuation of the Eagle brand at the end of the 1998 model year. The agreement with Mitsubishi was terminated in 1996, but Chrysler continued to use Mitsubishi engines (over 300,000 per year), and bought some Mitsubishi-made coupes; Mitsubishi, in turn, used Chrysler engines and transmissions in some vehicles.
For much more, see “Fast Facts 1997.”
The Jeep Cherokee was extensively restyled for 1997, with new sheet metal, seats, door trim panels, and a new, electronic instrument panel (with microprocessor) added; a tachometer and trip odometer became standard. Outside, a new grille and air dam, along with numerous other changes and additions, updated the Cherokee’s appearance. Front doors switched to a single pane of glass, and outside mirrors were enlarged, with optional power, heated mirrors.
The Cherokee kept its powertrain, but most of the electrical connectors were upgraded, a new plastic gas tank (20 gallons) replaced the steel tank and had a new fuel pump and new fuel lines. Transmissions were carried over, other than a new hydraulic clutch and pedal linkage on the manual transmissions. The Mark 20 antilock brake system was made available; the parking brake was relocated; a single-touch-down driver’s power window was added; and a floor console became standard, with an optional overhead module.
The largest change was a switch to the CCD bus, which eliminated numerous wires and electrical connections; the bus included the powertrain control system, instrument cluster, airbags, compass, electric locks, and, with the Aisin Warner automatic, the transmission computer. The remote entry system was switched from infra-red to radio, and could be programmed using either the MDS or DRB systems.
A 500 amp battery replaced the 430 amp one, and a 117 amp alternator replaced the 81 amp alternator. An electronic airbag replaced the mechanical one, and became standard equipment.
The two-liter engines had been targeted as some said they were harsh and noisy; the engine, used on Neon, Stratus, Cirrus, Sebring, Sebring Convertible, and Breeze, had its stamped-steel oil pan replaced with a thicker, cast aluminum pan that stiffened the lower engine block, and cut resonation of vibration from moving parts. On dual cam engines, a collar was added where the oil pan mounted to the block and transaxle to prevent bending and twisting.
The intake manifold on the 2.4 liter version of these engines was redesigned to lower rumble and cut induction noise; a larger induction resonator also cut induction noise. A new spring-loaded timing belt tensioner on the 2.4 replaced the hydraulic unit, too.
The Eagle Vision got a power boost as the 3.5 liter V6 became standard equipment; the LHS also had a standard 3.5, which at that point produced 214 horsepower (it would soon be boosted to 250).
Ram Sport trucks with the 360 V8 got the sport-tuned exhaust system used on 1996 Indy 500 Rams; the sound was changed and back pressure was reduced, adding a surprising 15 horsepower and 5 lb-ft of torque.
The 4.0 liter Grand Cherokee was added to the list of vehicles qualified as TLEV by California. Higher-capacity vapor canisters with enhanced purge systems were phased in on other cars to increase the vapor volume they would deal with. The use of returnless fuel injection (carried over from prior years) also cut back on vapor loss.
All gas engines were OBD II compliant for 1997; some vehicles had full-range misfire detection and a better catalytic converter monitoring system. The Cummins diesels were given OBD II for 1997 as well; these engines also got a redesigned throttle control system that increased durability, with new throttle levers and a new cable. The process for swapping fuel filters on Cummins diesels was eased by minor design changes.
New electrical connectors were used on all Jeeps and trucks to improve sealing and locking; spark plugs on these models were also replaced with extended-tip plugs, with a larger .04” gap for better idling. Finally, plastic fuel rails replaced metal ones on the Ram pickup, vans, and wagons with V8s.
The NV4500 manual transmission in the Ram pickup gained new blocker rings for each synchronizer, with carbon fiber material for durability; a new single-plane reverse mechanism easied shifting into reverse.
Automatic transmissions were also updated with interactive cruise control (throttle position and vehicle speed were factored into computations to smooth downshifts), and AutoStick, which came out in 1996, was expanded to the 2.5-liter Sebring ES and Convertible, 3.5-liter Intrepid ES, and Eagle Vision TSi. The 41TE and 42LE software was updated to go into Limp-In mode less often (cutting back on false alarms).
All wheel drive was returned to the minivans, based on the 1995 system but with a lighter weight viscous coupling and aluminum torque tube.
Four-wheel disc brakes were made standard on the all wheel drive minivans, using a “drum in hat” design to accommodate drum emergency brakes. A new Teves Mark 20 four-wheel antilock brake system was added to minivans and Grand Cherokees; it had better diagnostic capabilities, quieter operation, and less pedal feedback. Low-speed traction control (under 35 mph) was added to Town & Country as standard, and was made available on some other minivans. It used the ABS system to detect wheelspin. Meanwhile, diesel Rams switched to a hydraulic power brake booster from the vacuum booster, using an accumulator for power assistance when the engine is off.
Rams were given electrocoat (E-coat) paint, replacing the wax coat used on some full-sized pickups.
The J-cars got an LED display to light up the automatic transmission gear indicator (PRNDL); an electroluminescent display like that of the Sebring Convertible replaced the LED display on the J-cars, to reduce heat and power use. Popular features like the trip computer were made available on Cirrus and Sebring Convertible, and the universal garage door opener introduced in 1996 became standard on Cirrus. Other new electrical features included a “cruise active” light on minivans, autodimming mirror optional on Sebring Convertible, speed-controlled stereo volume on Viper Roadster, and standard 117 amp alternator on diesel Rams (replacing the 81 amp model).
J-bodies were quieted with a dense carpet incorporating a foam backing, larger door weatherstrips (for better water sealing, too), and four-times thicker door liners made of sound deadening material. A center armrest and storage console was added, with pullout dual cupholders, based on customer feedback. Rear passenger heat ducts were redesigned. Gas-charged cylinders kept deck lids up on the J-bodies for 1997, a new feature.
Minivans got quieter too, got foam in body cavities to cut noise, a spiral design on the antenna, and a retuned a/c suction line. Other minivan updates were better air conditioning outlets, Sport and Rallye packages on the long-wheelbase versions as well as short-wheelbase, and a standard driver-side sliding door on more models.
Town & Country models were switched to three models: SX (short wheelbase), LX (long wheelbase), and LXi (long wheelbase luxury). With leather seats, new front door trim panels with padded armrests, cupholders, and map pockets were used.
Sebring Convertible’s center console was revised with deeper, more separated cupholders; a new leather-like shift boot was used on all shfiters, automatic or AutoStick.
The LHS got hood-mounted washer nozzles, replacing “on the wiper” nozzles. Viper Roadster got ajdustable foot pedals and recirculation mode for the air conditioning.
Grand Cherokee got the new sound-barrier carpet, an insulator pad under the dashboard, a full body antichip coating made of epoxy polyester, redesigned rear seat heating ducts, and the ability to debug the automatic temperature control with the dealer systems.
Safety moves included automatically unlocking minivan doors and turning on interior lights when the airbag deployed, making remote locks standard for Town & Country, using a more theft-resistant steering column lock on Grand Cherokee and Rams, cutting power to the convertible’s trunk switch and garage door opener when the system was armed, using rolling codes on remote lock transmitters, and adding a power lock inhibitor to Ram pickups so that one could not use the lock button on the key fob if the driver’s door was open.
Ram SLT pickups got a leather trim package with numerous interior upgrades; Ram Van and Wagons got a new side and rear door check system that let doors open 170 degrees (if a pin was removed) for easier loading; the Ram Van could get a Tradesman Upfitter package with a roof-mounted ladder rack, front/rear partition, and rubber cargo area mat; and Sebring, Avenger, and Talon got new front and rear fascias, a rear spoiler (optional on Talon), and new colors.
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