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Chrysler at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show (NAIAS)

2007 NAIAS2008 NAIAS2009 NAIAS2010 NAIAS2009 ChicagoOther auto shows

Chrysler 300C 2011 Jeep Compass2012 Chrysler 200 Convertible

by Daniel Stern • Final Report

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There's a new Chrysler badge being applied to the vehicles this year. They've gotten rid of the gold medallion and replaced it with the word "CHRYSLER" on a blue field, surrounded by wings (sorta). Is it better? Well, it's certainly different. It's busy. Doesn't seem to have the quiet strength to become another Pentastar but time will tell.

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As was reported in the news, you can now see Chrysler Canada's headquarters building in Windsor from Detroit, complete with pentastars on each wall - but they hadn't gotten the sign completely lit in time for the show.

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The presentation: 300, Town & Country, 200

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This year's Chrysler presentation could not possibly be more different from last year's. Last year was embarrassing; the most prominent features were the stale reek of death and the chirruping of bored crickets. There was basically nothing much worth talking about - no cars, at least - doubts about the viability of the company formed the bulk of many stories. This year, Chrysler's got some serious horses in the race.

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The 300 has received a much-needed upgrade so extensive that "facelift" doesn't begin to cover it. The body has been resculpted to great effect; the overall design is now a great deal more integrated and classier. The taillamps, with their folded-card contour, no longer look like a space filler; they provide the finishing touch to the new car's nod to the tailfins of the 1955 Chrysler 300 (though they also strongly evoke memories of the taillamps of the 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass; there's really only so much you can do with a vertical oblong of red plastic). And they don't just look better, they work better: instead of old-fashioned bulbs they now light up with red LEDs.

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The angles of the rear bumper and decklid have been reworked; all the visual clutter's gone and the lines are much cleaner. Senior VP of Design Ralph Gilles says the new car is "less of a caricature", and he's right; it's a very welcome, badly overdue departure from the cartoony styling that has marred many recent Mopars. The new 300 has a bigger DLO - for Day Light Opening - achieved primarily by dint of a lower beltline.

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The new 300 has a bigger DLO - for Day Light Opening - achieved primarily by a lower beltline. Gilles says "We're guilty of starting the high beltline craze; today's customers want more daylight in the car, so we've opened up the beltline a little."

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A little goes a long way, as it seems. Everything's new up front; the previously bulgy grille has been put on a reducing diet and now looks more grown-up, though it puts one uncomfortably in mind of last decade's Kia Magentis/Amant knockoff of the Mercedes E-class grille. The Chrysler people seem less than fully confident in it, for they say a grille like that of the previous 300 will be available for the new car as a Mopar part; one imagines heated shouting matches in the styling studio. The design of the front combination lamp housing and lens, on the other hand, is a good bit less iffy. It was inspired, says Gilles, by the eye shape of the United States' national bird, the bald eagle. Well, perhaps.

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Bi-halogen lights generate regular and bright lights from a single filament; they are especially handy for lights that pivot on turns, and where there is limited space.

The front lamps are made by Korean supplier Hyundai-Mobis, a subsidiary of Hyundai-Kia, and contain a great deal more technology than Chrysler has tended to put into its lights before. There are LED parking and daytime running lights in a stylish C-shaped array like that of recent Audi models, and the basic equipment includes high-performance bi-halogen adaptive projector headlamps with the newest halogen bulb design; xenon lights are a premium option.

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There's a whackload of up-to-date driver assistance technology available: adaptive traction control that senses weather and adjusts accordingly; adaptive cruise control that maintains a safe distance to the vehicle in front, front and rear collision warning, cross-traffic sensing activated when the driver shifts to reverse, and blind spot monitoring. (Some of these technologies were in the minivan SafetyTec group and the 2011 Grand Cherokee as well.)

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Another big deal on the way: the famed eight-speed Chrysler-ZF automatic transmission, long rumored, originally intended just for SRT models, will actually be used with the Pentastar V6. Proof is in the sign behind Olivier Francois:

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Olivier Francois, CEO of the Chrysler brand, calls the new 300 "a pure American expression of automotive greatness a car that shows where we are going without forgetting where we are from."

Francois appears to be right in at least one literal sense: decades ago, laminated glass was used for most car applications. Since the mid-1950s, most cars have had laminated glass only for the windshield and less costly single-pane tempered glass everywhere else. But the new 300 has laminated glass all around; it does a better job blocking out the noise of the outside world.

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The roof panels are laser-brazed for seamless, weld-free integration with the rest of the body, and there's extensive use of ultra-high-strength steel throughout. This means the roof pillars can be thinner while still meeting newly tightened Federal standards for rollover strength.

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2011 Chrysler 200

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The new 200 is a substantial rework of the much-lambasted Sebring. It's got a 283 hp V6 engine Chrysler says will deliver 29 mpg.

Doug Verley, Chief Engineer on the 200, said, "We reworked everything we could. It's based on the old Sebring/Avenger platform, but you don't sit on or touch anything we didn't fix." [Dan reported that the seats were far more comfortable than in the Sebring.]

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The interior has had a major overhaul, a big upgrade. The cheap, hard-plastic infestation has been largely eradicated, though the door lock knobs and turn signal stalk seem to have developed resistance to the medicine. There are really nice swiveling LED dome lights, and the instrument cluster is nicely balanced; like that in the new 300, it's flashy without being gaudy. The navigation and entertainment system looks versatile, and bold lettering in a tasteful font advertises the presence of its hard disk.

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Jewel-like lights, front and back, are a great deal classier and less busy than the Sebring items, and a good bit more functional, too. Up front, there's a white LED parking lamp -- not used as a Daytime Running Light yet, but certainly a technical step up from the typical amber bulb.

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There's another set of the new high-performance bi-halogen projector headlamps Chrysler seems to have standardized on; several Tier-1 suppliers at the show expressed utter, gobsmacked astonishment that Chrysler is suddenly spending money on components (like the new headlights) that are better than they have to be. In back, the red LED brake/tail/turn lights are much more integrated than before. The car has a solid, substantial quality to it in most details; it feels like this could be a genuine competitor for the Camry, Accord, Taurus, Malibu, and Sonata.

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For those who don't think the 200 is quite to their tastes, Mopar has a substantially lower version with special paint and trim on display. It can't be ordered that way - yet - nor can it be outfitted quite like that (unless Mopar is selling the paint separately) but you can buy the parts to lower your own, replace the grille, etc.

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2011 Town & Country minivan

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Sharing the stage with the 200 and the 300 is the newly refreshed Town & Country minivan. Exterior styling changes are subtle and well thought out; the design is evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

The new headlamps are more sophisticated for better performance, and the new rear lamps include amber turn signals for the first time on the domestic model of a Chrysler minivan [Pacifica did have them]. North American regulations are the last ones in the world still permitting rear turns to be red or amber, even though US DOT research shows you're up to 28% less likely to be hit from behind if your car has amber ones.

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The interior's been completely reworked and substantially upgraded. There's new driver-assistance technology and a great deal of in-car entertainment equipment. Olivier Francois says "Kids weren't put in this world to make adults more comfortable, but drop-down DVD screens were!"

There's a 283-horsepower 3.6-litre V6 engine and improved driving dynamics; these, says Francois, are in-car entertainment for the adults driving.

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All in all, Francois says, the 2011 Chrysler range represents the idea that "you no longer have to cross an ocean for what Chrysler can deliver from these shores."

There's even talk of possibly exporting the 200 to Europe and other worldwide markets under the Lancia name. While the Dodge range is only just beginning to see these kinds of upgrades, there are definite signs of life. Today, there is an excited, optimistic feel that simply wasn't present last year, and is really hard to fake or force if the cars don't measure up.

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Jeep Compass reveal, 70th anniversary of Jeep (this section by Bill Cawthon)

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A narrator intones, "Be proud of your name, for your name is what defines you. Your name is what makes you who you are: unique. And nobody can take that away from you. Not now, not tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow. There is only you like there is only one of us. With everything that it means." The words make up seven lines, which rotate 90 degrees and two circles appear, forming the familiar Jeep trademark.

With that Jeep CEO Mike Manley takes the stage. Recalling the cattle stampede staged three years ago, Manley recalled that it was a challenge to avoid the sharp horns but, at the time, the folks from Chrysler didn't know they would not be able to avoid the hazards ahead.

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"Today, Chrysler is a very different company and striving to become a great company. It was only 14 months ago that we at Chrysler Group laid out our plans from a brand and product perspective that would start this company on its journey: a journey of recovery. Y'know, and many at the time commentated that those plans were ambitious, stretching, and that was certainly true: they were and they absolutely needed to be."

"But what was also clear was that the Jeep brand had a significant role to play. Frankly, it's no stretch to say the Jeep brand reflects what America is all about. Probably more than any other brand out there. Ingenuity, reinvention, can-do attitude, and becoming all that you can be to the fullest extent of your abilities.

"But Jeep is also a brand that lets us believe in possibilities. It lets us do what seems impossible. Jeep helps us realize some of the most important things in life. It enables and facilitates our dreams of adventure. And, like no other brand, Jeep both takes you there and gets you back.

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"Seventy years ago, Jeep vehicles, as you know, helped the world emerge from a period of war. And, really from that point onwards, they've enabled ordinary people to follow their dreams of taking extraordinary journeys through life."

While he played down comparisons with 2009, Manley said 2010 was a good year, including the introduction of the new Jeep Grand Cherokee and the achieving of promises made in November 2009.

Manley then delivered what he called a "State of the Jeep Brand Update." Jeep is the company's truly global brand: it's sold in more than 120 countries. International sales increased 24% worldwide and 26% in the U.S. In December, Jeep had its best retail sales month since May 2008, putting its recovery ahead of the industry as a whole. [Note: During the period from 2001-2010, Jeep retained a higher percentage of its sales than any domestic brand except Cadillac.]

The Patriot received much-needed upgrades and the Wrangler got a whole new interior and body-colored hard top for the Sahara. Wrangler worldwide sales grew by 26%, the second-highest improvement of any Jeep model.

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Describing the new Grand Cherokee as the most luxurious Jeep ever as well as the most capable, Manley said the timing could not have been better for the renewed interest in SUVs. Manley described the Overland Summit as the "most luxurious, distinctive and comprehensively equipped Jeep ever." In December, Grand Cherokee reached its highest monthly retail sales volume in over four years.

Introducing the new Jeep Compass, Manley noted customer comments on the former model included, "Is it really a true Jeep?" As a new red Compass rolled onto the stage, Manley said the new Compass "completely" addresses those concerns. The Compass can be equipped with Freedom Drive II package and wear the Jeep "Trail Rated" badge; as equipped, it is the most capable small SUV on the market.

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2011 is the 70th Anniversary of the initial production of the Jeep and Chrysler has created a unique 70th Anniversary edition trim, paint and badging package for each Jeep model.

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Manley closed the presentation, saying, "When I reflect on the 70th year of the great American Jeep I wouldn't really be able to, or dare, to predict what features you're going to find in seventy years' time. But I am absolutely certain of one thing: they will continue to be the most capable vehicle in their class."

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Meximerican Fiat 500

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The little Mexican-built Fiat 500 is here. Want people to know you're a hep cat? Say "CHING-kweh-CHEN-toh", not "Five Hunnerd."

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It's received some adjustments for the American market, including high-performance bi-halogen projector headlamps that use the newest type of halogen bulb. In the rest of the world, most 500s get basic old-fashioned reflector headlights that use a bulb designed in 1971.

Chrysler products made in Mexico have tended to be built and finished to a high standard, and the 500 appears to continue that happy tradition. Seams and joints are clean, even, and tight. Interior materials look well made and exude the feeling of quality. Will Americans go for a small car like this in any kind of volume? We'll check again a year from now.

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At the other end of the range is the newly refined Chrysler 300. So, the 300's the biggest, the [Fiat] 500's the smallest, and the 200's in the middle, and I hope you're taking notes; there's going to be a quiz.

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Final report and photos

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The competition

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More photos

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For more, see Chrysler 300CChrysler 200Town & CountryJeep Compass200 Convertible

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