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Making sense of SRT and Ram

by David Zatz on

News analysis.

Not long after telling enthusiasts that Chrysler had too many brands to be bringing Plymouth back, Chrysler leaders split off three brands: SRT, Ram, and Mopar.

The Mopar brand can be safely ignored, when it comes to cars; it’s clearly just selling modified versions of other cars, for the moment, to shine a spotlight on the Ram brand for aftermarket-style parts.  SRT and Ram are the sore points for many enthusiasts, so let’s look at the case for and against them.

Ram. For Ram, we have two arguments. First, the Ram brand will appeal to commercial buyers, positioned at Chrysler as GMC is positioned at General Motors. The “professional grade” brand will have a full line of commercial trucks from the light ProMaster City vans to the big Ram 5500 chassis cabs, to penetrate into the corporate-fleet market where Ford does so well. For every Ford, there will be an equivalent (hopefully better) Ram.

Likewise, splitting Ram from Dodge was explained, at the time, as freeing Dodge from the perception of making big cars with big engines and lousy mileage. Dodge was to pursue a new, European vision of “sporty cars” as defined by handling, not torque. The Dart is the poster child of this vision; the suspension is terrific, the powertrains… not so much. That may change when the nine-speeds are available, but to date, few critics have been impressed by any Dart engine-transmission combination. We found the Dart 1.4 to be a fine, fun car on rural roads and highways, and Dart 2.0 to be enjoyable in city and suburban streets, but neither quite makes the cut in both situations, and Dart 2.4 has some gas-mileage drawbacks without quite being neck-snapping.

At this point, we could argue that it makes more sense to revert Dodge back to the way most people see it anyway, and emphasize the muscle-car aspect of the brand. It has two rear wheel drive cars and a big rear wheel drive SUV, and a third rear-drive car is on the way. Rebrand Dodge Dart to Chrysler Valiant, make Dodge Caravan a crossover, and move Journey over to Chrysler when the next generation comes, and you have a pretty well focused (except, ha ha, for Caravan) brand with a sharp image and focus. Adding Ram to that could actually help, as the big diesel and gas trucks would be right in Dodge’s line. Lots of Americans like big vehicles with lots of torque. Yes, sales will drop like a stone when there are gas crises, but these tend not to last that long, and customers can go across the showroom to Chrysler and Fiat. That’s why dealerships are supposed to carry all those brands, right?

As for Ram being needed for commercial buyers… the leader in commercial vehicle sales, Ford, seems to have no problem with one brand for both purposes. General Motors doesn’t seem to be able to keep buyers segregated between Chevrolet and GMC. Fiat has the same name for standard and commercial vehicles, right up until Iveco. And it doesn’t require two nameplates to assign different executives to profit-and-loss for the different vehicle lines. Well, we’ll see what happens here, but we doubt Ram will go back to Dodge.

SRT. The SRT team was always separate, but the “super R/T” group (that “Street and Race Technology” acronym always seems forced) only recently was given its own brand, with Barracuda said to be its first car with a different name than the donor brand. Barracuda might or might not be dead as a name, but SRT is increasingly being emphasized as its own brand. It’s no longer a Dodge Charger SRT8, it’s an SRT Charger, depending on where you look.

Why would SRT be a separate brand? Perhaps it’s a matter of who’s buying them. If you want to attract buyers who would normally buy a BMW, Mercedes, Audi, or Lexus, you don’t offer them a blue-collar brand name like Dodge or Chrysler. SRT only makes hot cars, and their starting price is well over the $30,000 line.

In short, with SRT set up as a profit-making brand rather than an image loss-leader, the separation helps to attract a new set of deep-pocketed buyers who would normally be out of reach. Again, if Dodge strikes out as a muscle-car brand, the split will be a disadvantage to Dodge, but it could still be a “net win.”

One may disagree with the logic and assumptions implicit in the brand choices made under Sergio Marchionne, but there is logic behind them, along with decades of motor-industry experience.

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