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Dealer pairings vs Genesis

by David Zatz on

Opinion. During the Great Depression, Walter P. Chrysler let Chrysler dealers sell the lower-cost Plymouth, because few had the money for the higher-priced cars.

The Chrysler-Plymouth pairing was never severed, even when Plymouth lost its premium over Chevrolet and Ford, and Dodge and DeSoto were slotted between Chrysler and Plymouth.

In relatively recent times, Chrysler started to push all the brands together.  Even when it started, though, Plymouth was still around, the low-cost option; Chrysler was the corporate flagship; but many Jeep sales went to relatively wealthy buyers, with Wagoneer and Grand Cherokee buyers having average incomes Chrysler could only wish for.

What was wrong with putting them all together? Why is it still an issue?

Many buy “premium brand” cars for the cachet and the dealership perks, above all else. Market research shows that most buyers wouldn’t otherwise pay thousands more (sometimes tens of thousands more) for a slight edge in luxury, some gadgets, and maybe more power.

The dealership experience and cachet are both usually quite a bit lower from a dealership that also sells base models to subprime buyers. That’s why you don’t find many Maserati-Fiat dealers, and Lexus is always off on its own, away from Toyota.

five star dealers

Dealers with both “rich and poor” brands can up their game and have beautiful, well-outfitted customer areas for both;  many import sellers, and some domestic dealers, have done this regardless. At Chrysler, though, it’s more likely that prospective expensive-car buyers will encounter the pushy, “what-will-it-take-to-get-you-to-buy-today” salesmen and cheap waiting rooms all too familiar to Plymouth owners.

“Low-end” customers tend to resent extras garnered by high-end customers in the same dealership (e.g. free, hassle-free loaners), and the high-end customers aren’t likely to enjoy getting nothing more than a subprime buyer of a stripped-down compact.

Fiat tried to have it both ways by making all their dealerships to a high standard, so that when Alfa Romeo came along, the two could be paired — two premium Italian brands, like BMW and Mini. but Fiat never gained premium status in the US, so Fiat dealers did not have a lock on Alfa Romeo dealerships.

It might be too late, but ending the “Genesis” project, where every dealership sells every brand, would be a good, if far too late, first step. Chrysler and Jeep make sense as a pairing; they both theoretically cater to higher-end buyers, with higher-end price tags. That assumes, of course, that Chrysler’s current attempt to go “full mainstream” would be abandoned, with Dodge garnering the “daily drivers” and Chrysler striving to rise somewhat closer to (though still far from) Maserati.

Even today, neither Chrysler nor Jeep sells at the bottom of the food chain; both have relatively high-end products. Chryslers are bargain priced compared with similar Toyota cars, but they still have a certain upscale cachet in the minds of many buyers.

One can easily see Alfa Romeo fitting in with Chrysler and Jeep — a premium car, sold at a premium price, but discounted from the rest of the segment. They are all cars that you pay extra for, but which deliver more value than the next brand up. To get there, the standards for Chrysler and Jeep dealers would have to get a major shot in the arm — most existing shops would not make the cut. But for new dealerships, or anyone wanting Alfa Romeo (stop laughing), we can see it happening.

Meanwhile, Dodge and Ram share quite a bit, image-wise; one sells muscle cars (and other vehicles); the other sells trucks (and other vehicles). The two seem to go together well; one could even say that they could be combined into one brand.

Both Dodge and Ram have surprisingly high tickets on their most visible products — the SRTs and the big Ram trucks — but neither would benefit from being seen as a luxury brand; indeed, that would be counter to the image of either one.  Each has an image based on down-to-earth muscle and strength. One can’t see Chrysler in there as well — or buyers going to Dodge or Ram for kid-glove treatment.

It may be time to break those dealerships back up again. Legally, it would be hard to do; but they could start by not having new dealerships carrying every brand.

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