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Ordering, tracking, and buying a Chrysler car in 2012

by David Zatz

Over the course of the years, our beloved Chrysler 300M, purchased used from Teterboro Chrysler in 2004, has started to show some signs of wear and was given a list of recommended repairs; instead of investing in it, we started shopping, starting with the Dart - and somehow ended up looking at the 300.

This was in August, so I looked at the 2012 packages and 2013 packages, until the point came where I couldn't order the 2012s. I looked for mildly used cars or cars in inventory, but didn't find any with the combination of features and colors I wanted, so I decided to order.

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Pomoco Chrysler used to be known for their national parts sales - discounted 25% off list price.

Chrysler still had not finished the Build & Price part of their web site (eventually, they not only added the missing trim levels, but dramatically improved the ease of comparing models and sped up the whole process). I asked the guys at Teterboro Chrysler (New Jersey) to recommend a salesman, and they agreed that John was the man. At the time he couldn't provide the details on certain options and pricing, so I wrote to John Spatz, a helpful and unusually knowledgeable salesman at Pomoco CJDR of Newport News, Virginia, who checked out the options and answered my questions - in around three minutes flat.

Armed with the number and exact options I wanted, it took about an hour to actually get the car ordered - not including financing (arranged separately). I put down less cash than I would have expected, and left with a VON - vehicle order number, and some surprise that sales orders are still written by hand. (When you actually pick up the car, they are computer printed on standard forms.)

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Some time ago, Chrysler had advertised its new VOTS (Vehicle Order Tracking) system. This would have been a tremendous help during the Neon and PT Cruiser manias. I tried it out that night, but nothing happened even with the VON.

Warning: during November 2014 the VOTS system appeared to disappear. It may return.

The explanation came the next day, when Chrysler sent me an e-mail...

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It occured to me later that "ordering" might mean "putting into the right order," as in "sequencing." Some sarcasm is still deserved for anyone who would use this terminology on normal buyers...

I was glad they were ordering the parts. It doesn't sound very efficient to buy parts one car at a time, and I wonder how the parts guy remembers what to get. "Let me see, that's a 300, so I need six yards of leather..."

Sarcasm aside, it was a welcome email and acknowledgement, coming one day after. I believe that they do batch communication between these systems, with nightly interfaces - at least, that's my guess based on years of working around mainframes. The VOTS system now worked (if you use it, note that you get no feedback for several seconds after pressing "Submit"). The graphic display showed a generic assembly plant, and had each stage of the process listed, with "confirmation" shown in red (and a disclaimer showing that the plant is not necessarily the one our car is being made in).

The very next day (Sept. 27), I found that Joe in Parts had finished getting everything they would need:

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VOTS had sure enough been updated, and it showed the car model and name, the model year, and various features (keep in mind that California emissions are used by numerous states, not just California):

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On October 8, I wrote in to Chrysler Customer Service to ask for an exact build date, and was told it was scheduled for October 11. (There are many, many variables when ordering a car; sometimes specific parts or colors are backordered, and production can't be scheduled. There's a lot of luck involved. I've read in forums about other buyers having their cars built literally days after they ordered, and others having to wait over a month.)

The rep also told me there was no real way of knowing when I would actually get the car. Rail service is unpredictable; your auto gets loaded onto a rail car, then waits for a hundred or two hundred other rail cars to be headed the same way in the marshalling yard, then the train slowly lurches across the country, dropping off cars at rail yards now - cars which either are unloaded onto trucks (eventually), or sit and wait for another long train to get assembled (some unlucky cars may be missed from a train as well). I've been told the rail yards also sometimes forget to notify the people who are supposed to pick up their cars. The whole process can take a couple of weeks, a month, or two months; the estimate is "about a month." But it takes a fraction of the manpower, fuel, and overall cost of trucking it over.

(Sometimes they do put cars onto a truck, and I was surprised to find out that's what they did with mine.)

On October 11, Chrysler sent an email telling me the car's status in the VOTS system had changed. When I checked at 9 am, it was in Trim; the photo on VOTS had changed to one of trim installers (at Jefferson Avenue).

It remained stuck on Trim at least until 5 pm, most likely because the system is updated daily. Either that or installing trim takes a really, really, really long time... (a Chrysler spokesman clarified: "When the system refers to 'Trim,' it's really 'Trim, Chassis, Final (TCF)' and that typically does take a day on average in an assembly plant. Trim is actually everything from the sheet metal up; chassis is self-explanatory, and 'final' is items like the bezel around the radio, the cover over the spare tire, the steering wheel, rear view mirror, etc. A general rule of thumb for assembly for us is a day or so in body and paint, a day in TCF.")

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Sure enough, the next morning at 8:31 am (October 12), the system sent me a new update, saying my car had been built and that I should expect to wait around two weeks for delivery. The web page was updated to Shipment, with a note saying, "Your vehicle is being loaded into a transportation unit."

On October 15, it was still listed as "Shipment: your vehicle is being loaded into a transportation unit." I wondered how long they sat around before they get trucked or driven onto the rail cars. Or do they not update the system on weekends? The same message remained on October 16, and I began to think that maybe "Shipment" just has the wrong description - it's used for any time the car is in transit. That would make sense, since the final one is "Delivery," presumably used when it reaches the dealer and has the wrapping paper pulled off, the fluids checked (hopefully), and the paperwork lost (hopefully not).

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On October 15, I got a call from Chrysler's UConnect team. I had asked about what kind of SD cards could be used in the car, in the form they provided for customer contacts, the prior Thursday. (This response time was faster than Adobe's or Delta Airlines' stock answers to questions that Adobe and Delta clear don't actually read before sending out stock replies. Is this a good time to talk about how many companies' customer service departments fail the Turing test?)

The rep stayed on the phone with me for a while, discussing the options they'd found had worked, and mentioning that they were updating the knowledge base and maybe the owner literature, since he'd had to poke around to get the answers. I was impressed by that.
(The short answer is that the most dependable results come with a Class 2, 4, or 6 SDHC card of 8 gigabytes or less, though some larger cards may work for some customers. I got the impression you could chance it up to 32 GB, but if you stuck to their recommendations, it should work all the time. Later I discovered that 64 GB USB cards work reliably in most cars but not all cars.)

On October 16, Teterboro Chrysler called to say that the car was ready, and would I like to come and get it? The process was somewhat delayed as the driver, filling the tank with gas (now there's a nice change from the first time I bought a car), had decided that the steering wheel was slightly off center; so they took some time fixing that before washing it. During the wash, they uncovered front fascia scrapes from truck unloading (the yellow paint was a dead giveaway), and it went back the next day, at their request, to fix those - and when they were done, it was impossible to tell that anything had happened. The headlamps fogged (as you can see in the photo), but Chrysler has a service bulletin out noting that they are vented, and can fog up; if the condensation does not go away, or is excessive, they can replace it. The condensation did indeed go away, so Chrysler is off the hook on that one. (Side note from December 2014: they have not fogged up again in the two years we've had the car.)

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The car still showed on the tracking system as "Your vehicle is being loaded into a transportation unit," right through October 17. On the 18th, the tracker told me that the car would be arriving at my dealership soon. At the same time, though, it appeared in my Chrysler Owner's Center page, with the correct VIN (but no image).

Overall, I am impressed with Chrysler's efforts. The last time I ordered a car was in 1999, and it was nothing like this - there was no information at all, and it took two months, with the salesman always telling me it was a week or two away. Then, during PT Cruiser mania, I became much more closely acquainted with vehicle tracking (through others' efforts), including rail-car tracking. The frequent updates from Chrysler direct to the customer are a terrific improvement over harassing the salesman, and the customer service reps actually providing specific information (with appropriate hedges) is, in my opinion, a sign of a new era at Chrysler.

As for the car? That's another story.

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