Is Dodge dying?

News Analysis

Recently, Ward’s posted an article which was picked up (and exaggerated) by various news-scavenger sites. Insiders told Ward’s that two cars being rebranded from Dodge to something else, and the Avenger being dropped. The conclusion some drew: Dodge is dying.

graveWhen Sergio Marchionne started talking about the Dodge Avenger, over a year ago, it prompted death-of-Dodge stories then; but then, we’ve been reading death-of-Dodge stories since Daimler took over.

First, let’s look at Dodge Avenger. A rear wheel drive mid-sized car  is in the works; Chrysler/Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne publicly said more than once that it would not be economical to create one for Alfa Romeo alone, but making one for both Alfa and Dodge would work.

Not Chrysler. Dodge.

Does it make sense to make a Dodge version of the 200, which is  essentially a bigger Dart with a V6?  Chrysler’s division of sales among two or three brands makes it hard to make the top sales lists and increases costs and customer confusion. Having two midsize car means splitting the sales, unless they push the Chrysler brand upscale, which we’ve been told isn’t going to happen.

On the other hand, a rear wheel drive midsized Dodge Avenger (or Demon, or Daytona, or Magnum, or Shadow, or Lancer, or Rebel, or whatever) would make plenty of sense. It would give Alfa a credible car in the thick of its market, and give Dodge and SRT a more direct competitor for Camaro and Mustang, while improving Dodge’s image.

When Fiat took over, leaders said that Dodge would stay sporty, but would move from muscle to cornering. Dodge Dart sales invalidated that idea; Dart is a great handling car, but changing a brand in that radical yet subtle a way takes a lot of time and money. Instead, known fast-learner Sergio may be revising his plan from “change perceptions of Dodge” to the “change Dodge itself.”

Instead of being the everybrand and fighting with Chrysler to fit into Plymouth’s shoes, Dodge could expand on the work done by Charger and Challenger and Viper and, yes, Dodge Ram — even if the Viper stays within SRT and Ram stays off on its own. (I would argue that it’s time to bring SRT back down from full brand-hood, at least for Dodge.)

How many cars does a brand need? Dodge has Dart, Avenger, Journey, Challenger, Charger, and Caravan. Chrysler, which nobody is predicting the death of, only has 200, 300, and Town & Country. Dodge could easily lose two cars and remain viable.

The argument that Chrysler has too many brands would be tenable if Sergio hadn’t approved the full-brandhood of SRT, Mopar, and Ram. It doesn’t sound like he has a problem with “too many brands.”

There are some tough decisions in this strategy.  Making Dodge muscle only — rear drive Avenger, Challenger, Charger, and maybe the 2.4 Dart, with the other variants going over to Chrysler — leaves the question of the high-selling Journey and Caravan. Perhaps take Journey and jazz it up with a standard 3.2 V6 and nine-speed automatic, — a larger, less off-road-capable version of Cherokee — oh, right, that’s the plan anyway. Then take Caravan and make it more rough-and-tough, somehow, while keeping a Chrysler minivan for traditional buyers. Caravan hasn’t been doing all that well in the US retail market anyway.

Focusing Dodge on American-style performance would require the loss of some existing nameplates; and since there is no rear wheel drive midsize car available now, dropping Avenger for a while makes sense. Why confuse the market first by having two nearly identical midsize cars, then by switching one to rear wheel drive? Better to wait, have the gap, and, when perceptions of the current Avenger have grown fuzzy, then relaunch it with a brand new car.

In short — is Dodge dying? I highly doubt it. It remains important to Chrysler, and it has a distinct image, even if it’s not an image that’s of any use in selling Darts. If Chrysler decides to work with that image, instead of against it, they will have a winner on their hands — except when we have an active gas crisis.

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