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Chrysler: More Buick than Plymouth

by Bill Cawthon on

At his Detroit Auto Show press conference, FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne reiterated his vision of “the universalization of Chrysler as really the mass-market brand here….”

To many, “mass market” implies that Chrysler will be positioned to compete with Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan and Toyota.

The reality is that in 2014 the Chrysler brand didn’t even sell as many vehicles as Volkswagen brand.

And the truth is that it can’t. Despite what some have envisioned, Chrysler can’t be the replacement for Plymouth because of the three Ps: Product, Pricing, and Perception.

Walter-Chrysler-Logos-Web

Chrysler doesn’t, and won’t, have the product line it needs to compete with the other mass-market players. Even with the new models promised by 2018, Chrysler won’t be able to go head-to-head with Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota. As the table shows, there are just too many holes in the line. The figures at the bottom of the table are the 2014 sales of the models shown, not the total brand sales.

Chrysler-v-Mainstream-Web

Of course, the easy answer is to simply plug clones of Dodge and Jeep models into the spaces.

Chrysler-v-Mainstream-2-Web

But, as with most easy answers, there’s a catch. Chrysler/FCA has been working hard to bring its four domestic brands under one roof at the dealership level. With the Avenger gone and the Grand Caravan on the endangered species list, an FCA dealer has very little product overlap. The Chrysler and Dodge brands cover passenger cars from compact to full-size and have good crossovers/SUVs from Dodge and Jeep, where only the Durango and Grand Cherokee compete in the same class.

Who needs clones when the real thing is already on the floor?

Next problem is Pricing. The Chrysler 200 is competitively priced with the Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion, but the Chrysler Town & Country is $1,000 more than the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna and the Chrysler 300 is $4,000 higher than the Chevrolet Impala and Ford Taurus. It has a base MSRP that’s just $890 less than the Toyota Avalon, which is Toyota’s near-premium model.

So does FCA decontent the 300 to a price point competitive with the Impala and Taurus and, incidentally, the Charger? Is there a Chrysler 300 Pursuit in the works?

If FCA is going to cheapen the Town & Country to hit the price of a Dodge Grand Caravan SXT, why drop the Dodge?

The third obstacle is Perception. Chrysler has been an upscale marque since the Chrysler Four was split off to become Plymouth. Even when there was a separate Imperial line, Chrysler was just below it. In content, fittings, and presentation, the Chrysler 300 is a premium automobile. R.L. Polk considers the 300’s competition to be cars from Lincoln and Cadillac (but Chrysler’s demographics are better).

Moreover, why compete with the Taurus and Impala when both had larger year-over-year sales deficits than the 300? The full-size car market is tough enough as it is, why go to the bottom of it? The only reason the Taurus outsold the 300 is because its total included sales of the Police Interceptor Sedan. The way Ford reports sales, which splits out the PI sedan, the 300 outsold the regular Taurus.

So why would FCA trash decades of brand development, risk a backlash from current customers, who might well leave the brand and go to the competition, and alienate shoppers who aren’t looking for the cheapest car but are looking for a nice one?

If Chrysler is going to be the “universal brand” the only way “universal” makes sense is if Chrysler is a line of vehicles for buyers who don’t want Dodge’s performance image, don’t want a Ram pickup and don’t want a Jeep. In other words, a car line for those who want a somewhat upscale people-mover.

In other words, Buick. The brand that Walter P. Chrysler ran before coming to Maxwell.

Buick-2015-Avenir-Concept-Web

Chrysler can go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with Buick. Even if Buick puts a large car like the Avenir, which is nearly six inches longer than the 300, into production.

With the upcoming compact car and crossovers, Chrysler can actually overmatch GM’s near-premium brand. In fact, the Chrysler 200 and 300 combined to sell almost as many cars in 2014 and Buick and Cadillac combined. The Chrysler 300, all by itself, outsold every other American-badged upscale car.

Chrysler-v-Premium-Web

Total Chrysler brand sales also beat the total sales of Buick, Cadillac and Lincoln. Chrysler is already is top American premium brand, so don’t trash it: grow it.

Speaking of growth, the latest five-year plan calls for Chrysler brand sales to hit 800,000 by 2018. That’s a 227.3% increase over Chrysler’s 2014 worldwide total. It may sound impossible, but the addition of a “Chrysler 100” that could be competitive in its segment, continued growth of the Chrysler 200, and the addition of the two crossovers, it could be doable without having to beat Ford or Chevy.

Most important, it can be done while preserving Chrysler’s cachet as an upscale brand.

Bill Cawthon grew up in the auto industry in the 1950s. His Dad worked for Chrysler and Bill spent a number of Saturdays down on the plant floor at Dodge Main in Hamtramck. Bill is also the U.S. market correspondent for just-auto.com, a British auto industry publication, and a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, which has named the Jeep Grand Cherokee the “SUV of Texas” several times and named the Ram 1500 as the “Truck of Texas” two years running.

Bill has owned five Plymouths (including the only 1962 “Texan”), one Dodge and one Chrysler and is still trying to figure out how to justify a Wrangler. He also has owned at least one of every 1:87 scale model of a Chrysler product. You can reach him directly at (206) 888-7324 or by using the form.

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