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Is Dodge being killed, or just being focused?

by David Zatz, June 2013 / updated March 2015

Pundits are again proclaiming the death of Dodge. That might be true - or Dodge might be changing its products to match its strategy and image, in what may be a first for Maxwell/Chrysler/FCA US LLC.

Since Walter P. Chrysler took over, branding has been an issue for the company. Not long after Chrysler Corporation took over Maxwell Motors, the old Maxwell four-cylinder (as updated by the famed "Three Musketeers" into "the Good Maxwell") became the Chrysler Four, though it was barely related.

One year later, it was rebranded as the Plymouth.

Later, the company made numerous marketing gaffes, such as Dodge Coronet starting out at the top and dropping to entry-level just three years.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Chrysler had similar cars differentiated by size, power, and trim. Then Chrysler got a Dodge body, Dodge got a Chrysler body and a Plymouth body, and Plymouth got a Dodge body; and they were barely differentiated. Right into the 1990s, Plymouth, Dodge, and Chrysler all strove for sales volume, without trying to maintain a unique brand image aside from "styling cues."

Dodge is now seen as the performance brand of the 1960s and 1970s, but Plymouth was more active in racing in most years, and had the best selling performance cars Chrysler made: the Plymouth Duster and Plymouth Road Runner, both runaway successes.

As for Dodge, the Dodge Challenger was a sales dud, and Charger had only a couple of big years, due largely to its fine styling, and never came close to Duster (Charger out-sold Road Runner, but Road Runner was only a performance car, while Charger was sold in low-performance forms). Dodge's Road Runner clone, Super Bee, was an also-ran.

There were a few place where Dodge had superior performance: Dart GTS, Dodge D-500, Dodge Charger 500, and Dodge Charger Daytona. These weren't especially big sellers at the time.

Dodge's performance image was really built by Lee Iacocca, who mainly stopped Plymouth from competing on performance. Dodge got the Plymouth cars, and upmarket cars shared with Chrysler, and trucks, and performance cars, including the Shelby models. Dodge had every performance car without giving up nonperformance or semi-luxury. Mr. Iacocca's brand discipline stopped at saying "no" to Dodge.

During this era, Dodge suspensions had a firmer feel than Chrysler or Plymouth. In the US, Chrysler had no small car; and Plymouth had no large car (neither had trucks). Dodge had everything. It seemed as though the goal was to replace the three brands with just Dodge.

Chrysler's lack of discipline kept the brand from higher-end buyers, and starved Plymouth until the traditional sales leader was dropped.

That brings us to the question... are we looking at the death of Dodge?

I suspect the answer is "No" - this is the first really focused Dodge since it was named Dodge Brothers (and focused on durability and reliability, not performance).

I believe that Chrysler has chosen to take Chrysler, which has a vague upmarket aura that will never attract luxury buyers, and make that the new Plymouth, setting Dodge free to focus (focus sometimes means giving up short-term sales for long-term gain). The luxury brands are Alfa Romeo and Maserati. This fits with FCA's plan of only making "premium" cars, which is also, by the way, the Walter P. Chrysler plan, with Plymouth originally costing more than Chevrolet and Ford.

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The repositioning of Dodge performance as "handling focused" was tried with Dart, to immunize Dodge from gas crises, but this is America, where gas crises are brief. Dodge may take a big hit when pump prices zoom up, but will rake in profits when pump prices fall (or remain constant) again.

Dodge's biggest barriers are Journey and Caravan, since they do not fit the performance image. The Avenger is temporarily gone, though it was quick enough with the V6; it may come back when Dodge has a rear wheel drive mid-size platform to play with - that's in 2018 or so. Why Avenger, not another name? Because it would be nice to have some name continuity for once. Seriously.

So if we look at Dodge of calendar-year 2016, I think we'll see a nine-speed Dart with the 2.4 optional on all models, and maybe a new, sporty Journey. That would be just two front-wheel-drive cars, each available with optional AWD. Then, in the rear drive column, we'd have Charger, Challenger, and Durango. A new RWD Avenger may arrive in 2018.

In 2013, I wrote that I'd drop SRT as a separate brand; if Dodge is aiming for a real performance image, SRT should not be separate. I also wrote that I would move the Dart over to Chrysler and let Dodge have the "big muscle" rep. The second generation Dart could become the Chrysler Valiant. Maybe there'd be one Dart available - the hottest one, with a 2.0 turbo or some such. Likewise, I'd seriously think about moving Journey over to Chrysler, perhaps keeping the same name; it's not really a Dodge, and in the US it doesn't sell all that well as a Dodge.

Perhaps, instead of looking at the death of Dodge, we're looking at a new life for an all-too-fuzzy brand.

Dr. David Zatz started out as an organizational development consultant in 1991.

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