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The future of Chrysler

by Michael Volkmann on

When Chrysler was being reborn in the 1990s, there were definite product plans for each division, starting with flagship cars and dreamy concepts.

The most popular concept-car-turned-real of this era was the Dodge Viper, an ambitious goal given the 1991 Dodges; but it set the tone for what Dodge would eventually be.

Another was the Plymouth Prowler, which was to lead a new vision of the brand, followed by the PT Cruiser and a restyled Voyager (Plymouth was dropped too early, and the PT was shunted into Chrysler; the Voyager was never given the “Prowler treatment”).

As time has marched on and Chrysler Corporation yielded to DaimlerChrysler, Chrysler Group, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, three of the four brands still hold to their clear product plans.

Even if the Dodge and Jeep both balance regular vehicles with brand-appropriate variants (Charger SXT vs Charger SRT, Compass vs Compass Trailhawk), Dodge’s image is still performance oriented vehicles that take people back to the glory days of the muscle car era, and Jeep is still aimed at freedom, American spirit, and off-roading.  Ram is clearly building trucks and vans with a broad brush of utility, luxury, and enthusiast-loved variants.

But what is the future of Chrysler?

Chrysler never got a flagship car during the ’90s; they couldn’t make up their minds on what it would be, resulting in numerous memorable concept cars but no actual production.

For Chrysler, lead designer Tom Gale was clearly striving for early-motoring luxury, as extreme as the Viper but in a more sophisticated direction — like nothing Chrysler actually produced.  Flagship candidates included the Viper-like 1991 Chrysler 300, the truly high-end 1995 Atlantic, and the swoopy 1998 Chronos.  Then came the 300 Hemi C Concept, the Chrysler 300C concept, and the production flagship Chrysler that many instantly loved, the 2005 Chrysler 300/300C.

Chrysler was diluted somewhat by leftover vehicles along the way. At the last minute, the Eagle Vision became the 300M; the Crossfire ended up being a retuned, reimaged Mercedes SLK320; and the Plymouth PT Cruiser, Prowler, and Voyager were both all rebadged as Chryslers when the decision to axe Plymouth came down.

The LX 300 has been considered the flagship for quite some time, even as it has been updated, retuned, and updated again.  It still has solid, steady sales; but the full size sedan market has been shrinking, and the 300’s racier brother, the Dodge Charger, is winning the sales race in the market.

Then Chrysler surprised everyone last year by introducing the Portal at the Consumer Electronics Show; and the Pacifica and Pacifica Hybrid started receiving high honors from critics.

We can consider the Portal to be the latest concept vying for the title of “flagship Chrysler.”  But first, consider the Pacifica Hybrid to be the current brand flagship, not the 300.

That is most likely the direction of Chrysler as a brand, not falling too far from the tree of the original 1924 Chrysler cars — which, you may notice, were not all sedans.  If Chrysler is supposed to be a mainstream people-moving brand, then these are vehicles we expect.

Since Chrysler shares showroom space with three other brands, no brand has to have a full lineup; but someone has to fill the gap when Dodge focuses on muscle and Jeep keeps all its SUVs and CUVs off-road-ready (at least in Trailhawk trim). Chrysler has to fill the gap that remains.

So what should we expect from the Chrysler brand in the future?

For years, we have heard that there would be at least two new Chrysler crossovers, one modified from Jeep Cherokee roots, and one based on the Pacifica.  The Portal could be a third crossover to bring in the highest levels of technical development, including  lessons learned from the Waymo partnership involving the Pacifica.

That means three crossovers and one minivan — all based on upon  versions of the CUSW platform — that could shape the future of Chrysler for the next decade.

Timing is certainly a question.  A three row version of the Cherokee, modified to fit the Chrysler brand (and to take the place of the current Dodge Journey) may come within the next year to two.  The large crossover based on the Pacifica probably will not begin production until after the Grand Caravan stops, but that timeline lines up well if the 300 ends production ends a year or two later, say, in calendar-year 2020.

The Portal is the wild card, and its debut is more difficult to determine at this time.  Development was likely slowed down when sales slumped, so FCA could reach its goal of being net-debt-free at the end of the year. That’s an important goal, because the auto market is expected to tighten over the next few years, and FCA will likely need to acquire cheaper loans to make it through.  Allpar  believes that all these crossovers are far along in development, more so than maybe some realize.

All the Chryslers will probably share key technologies, like the Pacifica Hybrid system, AWD that uses separate electric motors to drive the rear wheels, Stow-N-Go, 360° cameras, power lift gates,  LED lighting, enhanced infotainment with head up displays, unique storage systems, and even fully electric variants with autonomous-driving capabilities.

Chrysler is in a tough spot, in many ways. The name is associated both with mildly high-end cars, with some people putting Chrysler with Buick and Cadillac, others thinking of rebadged Plymouths, or many associating with something else between. For much of the population, Chrysler is now tied to two bankruptcies and bailouts (though there was, in reality, just one bankruptcy).

The task for FCA is to figure out which brand image and supporting product line will fit into current perceptions perfectly, so it “sticks” — unlike, say, Dodge’s brief attempt at “European sportiness” or Oldsmobile’s (and Eagle’s) attempt to be an “import fighter.”

At this point, it’s speculation based on fragmentary statements from FCA leaders — but we believe the future for Chrysler is bright and that we will all learn that future fairly soon.

Michael Volkmann, a mechanical engineer in the steel industry, autocrossed and road-raced Neons. Michael has drag raced his 1971 Duster 340, 2009 Challenger R/T, and Neons, of which he’s owned seven — one SRT4, three ACRs, and three Sport Coupes.

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