I spent a good amount of time reading about the Detroit auto show, especially about Chrysler. With nothing new to show, Chrysler arrived in Detroit tooting about revised model lines, new standard equipment, etc. Hardly exciting stuff. Checking out the responses from readers at various auto-related blogs, a good deal of the general public seems certain that Chrysler is still going down. A strong opinion indeed, especially since no one has seen how the merger with Fiat will work out.
Personally, given the awful year they suffered through, and a long-neglected product portfolio, I thought it took guts and courage for Chrysler to set up a booth in the first place. The easy thing to do would have been to bury their head in the sand, and claim Ã‚Â for cost-cutting reasons, they couldn’t show. But they did, and Chrysler did the best they could with what limited resources they had. Facing the media could not have been a simple task, but I applaud Chrysler.
Chrysler has been in serious trouble before. In 1979, the company approached the US Government, explaining that without a loan, they would go bankrupt. Then, as now, Chrysler lacked vehicles that met the demands of the consumer. In the face on a fuel crisis, all Chrysler had was the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon, which was a subpar imitation of the VW Rabbit. Worse, the rushed to production Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare caused Chrysler enormous warranty costs. But Chrysler was approved for the loan, and the savior came in an unlikely form.
Remember the K-Car? Sold as the Dodge Aries or Plymouth Reliant, this is the vehicle that would ultimately take Chrysler back into the red. It was priced right, offered decent interior room, front wheel drive, and good fuel economy. Apart from that, it was a truly horrible car in every conceivable way. The K-car chassis would spawn the Chrysler minivans, and served as the basis of nearly every car sold by Chrysler through the 1980’s. Chrysler repaid the US Government loans years early.
With the acquisition of AMC (for Jeep), alliances with Mitsubishi, the introduction of the radical Viper and the cab-forward LH sedans, Chrysler was on a roll in the 1990’s, also helped by the go-happy Neon compact. Chrysler’s modern problems started in 1998, when the company merged with Daimler. At the time, Daimler promised that Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz would be a “merger of equals”. It did not take long to realize that this was not the case. By equal, Daimler meant giving Chrysler obsolete, second-hand technology for their cars. Sad, considering Chrysler’s former status as an engineering innovator. The Crossfire “sports” car used old SLK parts, but the far more successful Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger benefited greatly from Mercedes E-Class bits.
But that was about it. Daimler quickly lost interest in Chrysler. The company shut down Plymouth, when just before the merger Chrysler had ambitious plans for the brand. Incredibly, Daimler never worked to provide Chrysler with a competitive, fuel efficient sub or compact car. Daimler finally unloaded Chrysler to Cerberus-a company with virtually no experience in the car business in 2007. To call Chrysler’s new parent a bad one is almost being too kind. Cerberus’ indifference to Chrysler was stunning, and sales fell through the floor in the absence of new vehicles, or even an attempt to keep the current cars competitive.
In light of this, I can’t bring myself to blame Chrysler themselves for their current problems. Management at a higher level is the culprit. Daimler and Cerberus crossed paths when Chrysler was on a roll, and both companies managed to do tremendous damage in their own way.
Enter Fiat. This is major, folks. We are facing a wave of fantastic vehicles that we have been previously denied. I feel the iconic Fiat 500 has the ability to displace BMW’s Mini as the ultimate statement for compact yet fashionable transportation as long as they market it right, and keep costs below the Mini’s considerably premium pricing. While it is still too early to know, apart from the 500, exactly what cars we will see, the signs of life at Chrysler are shining bright. To the naysayers, I say, give it time. To quote crooner Tony Bennett, “The best is yet to come.”