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The never-ending “death of Dodge” rumors

by David Zatz on

Dodge logosAnalysis.

The rumors are slowly spreading again, claiming that Dodge is being killed off. (And we’re not going to encourage them by posting links.)

It seems odd that Chrysler would kill a brand about to celebrate its 100th birthday (decently waiting until 2014, rather than starting a year early, as Maserati is doing), especially as it readies upgrades for the Challenger and Charger, and reportedly is seeing customers responding well to changes in the 2014 Dart.

The reason for the rumors is likely informal confirmation that Dodge Avenger is indeed going away when the Sterling Heights plant starts making 2015 Chrysler 200s. (We still believe that Avenger will return on a much-confirmed rear wheel drive car whose basics will be shared with Alfa Romeo).

In the past, I’ve written that Dodge is probably being retuned into a specialty brand, as Pontiac was under DeLorean, and as Rick Wagoner claimed it would be again (just before assigning a rebadged Chevy Aveo to it, which is one reason why it was hard to take Mr. Wagoner seriously as a leader).

1969 Dodge Charger photos

That is one move that would make sense, given Chrysler’s history since the 1960s. Before then, most marques would make one or two basic cars in many body styles. Even into the early 1970s, Chrysler materials referred “the Chrysler” (and, separately, “the Chrysler Newport” … “the Plymouth” and “the Plymouth Valiant.”) Plymouth expanded into larger cars; Dodge expanded into smaller and higher-trim cars; and Chrysler moved down into Dodge. Trim differences, where they even existed, could not cover up the fact that buyers were getting the same cars with different labels. The brands became largely meaningless.

By the 1980s, it seemed like there was Plymouth, Plymouth+turbo engines (Dodge), and Plymouth+chrome (Chrysler). Even today, what is Chrysler but “Dodge with nicer trim”?

The original Chrysler niche, the mid-range brand, is almost dead. Nash, Oldsmobile, Kaiser, Pontiac, DeSoto, Mercury, Essex, and the rest are dead or changed now. Chrysler’s three cars are all price-comparable to equivalent cars from mass-market brands (Honda, Toyota, Chevrolet, Ford, Hyundai), not near-luxury or luxury brands (Lincoln, Cadillac, Mercedes, Lexus).

Chrysler can’t move up to luxury in less than ten or twenty years, because it’s been selling mainstream cars for too many decades; and Maserati and Alfa Romeo are already there. What would Chrysler do with the LX that Alfa Romeo and Maserati (Ghibli, Quattroporte) will not? What would Chrysler do with the new midsize car that its Italian brethren will not have already done?

2014 Maserati Ghibli

I believe the solution is what Chrysler appears to be doing now: positioning Dodge as a muscle/sports pision, and Chrysler as “the old Plymouth” — a car that costs a little more and delivers a lot more. It is far easier to push Dodge into a niche which conforms with mass perceptions anyway, than to try to shove Chrysler into a place that customers probably won’t believe in, and may not work anyway.

Doing this would require some pruning and changes. Journey would likely have to move to Chrysler; the minivan certainly would, with Dodge Caravan becoming something more like Durango (indeed, one wonders what Dodge would do with two full-size crossovers, which may be why Durango seems to be slated to become Jeep Grand Wagoneer in its next revision. If sales continue to be good for Durango, though, Chrysler may choose to have three versions of its Grand Cherokee, and live with some overlap; after all, Durango can tow and carry a Hemi, and it’s unlikely that the Caravan will do either one.)

So, Dodge lovers, I say to you — do not despair. Dodge is going to hew closer to its muscle image, ignore its other roots, and probably deliver pleasant surprises for decades to come.

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