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Dodge death or new strategy?

by David Zatz on

 News Analysis

Pundits are proclaiming the death of Dodge. That might be true — or Dodge might actually be changing its products to match its strategy and image, in a first for the brand (and maybe for the company).

Chrysler has had issues with branding from the start. After the conversion to from Maxwell Motors to Chrysler Corporation, the old Maxwell became a Chrysler, though it was barely related; then the refreshed Maxwell was pushed off into a new brand, Plymouth. We won’t even get into later gaffes, such as Dodge Coronet starting out at the top and dropping to entry-level just three years.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Chrysler had similar cars differentiated by size, power, and trim. Then Chrysler got a Dodge body, Dodge got a Chrysler body and a Plymouth body, and Plymouth got a Dodge body; and there was no real attempt to differentiate by muscle, theme, or focus. Right into the 1990s, Plymouth, Dodge, and Chrysler all strove for nothing but sales volume, without trying to maintain a unique brand image in any way other than “styling cues” in the grille, tail-lights, and gauge fonts.

Dodge is now seen as the performance brand of the 1960s and 1970s, but Plymouth was far more active in racing, and had the best selling performance cars Chrysler made: the Plymouth Duster and Plymouth Road Runner, both runaway successes. The Dodge Challenger was a sales dud, and Charger had only a couple of big years, neither of which could come close to Duster (Charger out-sold Road Runner but Road Runner was only a performance car, while Charger was sold in low-po forms). Dodge’s Road Runner clone, Super Bee, was an also-ran at the time, and while Dart GTS had some performance credentials, Dart sales were dwarfed, overall, by Valiant and Duster.

Dodge’s performance image was built by Lee Iacocca, who stopped Plymouth from competing on performance; other than two Dusters. Dodge got both the Plymouth type cars, and upmarket cars shared with Chrysler, and trucks, and  performance cars, including all the Shelby models. Mr. Iacocca’s Dodge had its cake and ate it, too: Dodge had every performance car without giving up nonperformance or semi-luxury. Iacocca’s brand discipline stopped at saying “no” to Dodge, and the result was still brand diffusion and the withering of both Plymouth and Chrysler.

Perhaps that is an overstatement; Dodge suspensions were usually set up with a firmer feel than Chrysler or Plymouth, even in minivans; and Chrysler never started as low as the lowest Plymouth, nor did Plymouth reach as high as the top Chryslers. Indeed, Plymouth was banned from getting an LH car or V6 mid-size, though Dodge was not banned from anything.

During the 1980s, Dodge was not only Chrysler’s Pontiac, it was also its Chevrolet, Buick, and Oldsmobile, with the base Aries and Caravan on one hand, and its chromed-up Dynasty and Lancer on the other, all diluting the hot turbo cars and, in the 1990s, the even hotter Viper. That’s not even to mention the truck lines.

Chrysler Corporation essentially had three Plymouths, with both Chrysler and Dodge vying for the mass-market sales of Plymouth; they could have targeted Dodge’s image and Chrysler’s product line, getting fewer Dodge and Chrysler sales with higher margins while Plymouth took the low-margin customers, but the higher brands did not resist the temptation of entry-level numbers. The lack of discipline kept Chrysler from being seriously considered by near-luxury buyers, and dropped Dodge from its midrange perch, while starving Plymouth of customers.

Chrysler responded by dropping the real Plymouth. Today, Dodge aims for Plymouth’s old position with Caravan, Journey, Dart, and base Avengers, while Chrysler aims for it with 200 (and, until recently, with low-end 300s and Town & Countrys.) With Dodge Caravan apparently to be dropped from the “real minivan” roster in two years, Chrysler Town & Country will likely dip down to get former Dodge customers, just as 200 dips down into former Plymouth turf. So Chrysler, other than 300, is to remain “Plymouth with chrome.”

That brings us to the question… are we looking at the death of Dodge?

And my answer is — No, we are looking at the first real focus Dodge has had since it was named Dodge Brothers.

I believe that Chrysler has chosen to take Chrysler, which has a vague upmarket aura but will never attract large numbers of luxury buyers, and make that the new Plymouth, setting Dodge free to focus (focus sometimes means giving up short-term sales for long-term gain). The luxury brands are Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

racing Dodge Challengers in Canadian Tire NASCAR series

The repositioning of Dodge performance as “handling focused” was tried to immunize Dodge from gas crises, but this is America, where gas crises are usually brief. Let Fiat and Chrysler pick up the slack; let Dodge be pure, taking a big hit when pump prices zoom up, but also raking in profits when pump prices fall (or remain constant) again. The  idea of “cornering performance” doesn’t work with Americans.

Dodge’s biggest barriers to a real performance focus, other than discipline, are Journey, Durango, and Caravan. In the US, retail buyers have gone to the Town & Country, for the most part; so losing Caravan in the US (it might stay in Canada) might not be a major loss, especially if it was replaced by another car named Dodge Caravan, based on the minivan platform, but in a sportier crossover format and with an emphasis on performance.

In a few years, many expect Durango to be replaced by Jeep Wagoneer. Journey will be put onto a new platform with the de rigeur nine-speed, AWD, and V6, and might even end up in the Chrysler camp (perhaps they can even “dual” Journey, with a sporty version for Dodge — V6 only, thank you — and a mainstream for Chrysler).

Avenger looks moderately sporty and turns in decent numbers with the V6, but doesn’t quite fit the image; so Avenger will go away for a while, and come back when Dodge has a rear wheel drive mid-size platform to play with — that’s 2016 or 2017. The SRT will be a two-door called Barracuda, but I think Dodge will be getting two and four door versions as well, and if I were in charge, I’d be calling them Avenger. Why? Because it would be nice to have some name continuity for once. Seriously.

So if we look at Dodge of calendar-year 2016, I think we’ll see a nine-speed Dart with the 2.4 optional on all models, a Caravan crossover, and maybe a new Journey. That would be three front-wheel-drive cars, each available with optional AWD. Then, in the rear drive column, we’d have Avenger, Charger, Challenger, and (maybe) Durango.

Ideally, if I were in charge, I’d drop SRT as a separate brand despite the large investment. If Dodge is aiming for a real performance image, SRT should not be separate. Alternatively, I’d keep SRT, but restrict it (publicly) to Jeep and Chrysler; for the public, SRT Dodges would be R/T cars. Challenger R/T and Charger R/T would thus get the SRT packages, and SRT would get the profit-loss credit, but the public would associate them with Dodge.

Very long term, I would move Dart over to Chrysler and let Dodge have the “big muscle” rep. The second generation Dart could become the Chrysler Valiant. Maybe there’d be one Dart available — the hottest one, with a 2.4 turbo or some such. Maybe not. Likewise, I’d seriously think about moving Journey over to Chrysler, perhaps keeping the same name; it’s not really a Dodge, and in the US it doesn’t sell all that well as a Dodge.

Perhaps, instead of looking at the death of Dodge, we’re looking at a new life for an all-too-fuzzy brand.

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