The cars we loved.
This series of What’s Wrong With could have been made just for Chrysler.
For much of my life Chrysler has been in some kind of financial trouble. My first awareness of the companies troubles came in adolescence with it’s near bankruptcy in the late ’70s. By the time I had become a teenager, the life saving K Car turned the companies fortunes around thanks to a government backed loan. From that point on, any car branded Chrysler, Dodge or Plymouth seemed doomed to underdog status.
Despite that cloud, Chrysler’s products were always interesting from a engineering and design perspective, like the poor kid who grows up knowing how to do more with less. Those moments (or decades) of efficiency would be inter sped with moments of outright brilliance. The Daytona, Shelby GTS and Viper were just a few hits. Then there were breadwinner practical hits like the original Caravan and the LH line of cars.
When Chrysler could not do it alone they teamed with Mitsubishi to create standouts like the Diamond Star cars (Mitsubishi Eclipse, Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser). With the purchase of Jeep and the establishment of the captive import Eagle brand, Chrysler seemed to be on the right track.
The hits always seemed to start with a bang, then shortly after the competition would catch up and surpasses Chrysler’s original efforts. In the meantime Chrysler would fail to improve quality, or could not keep up with market trends fast enough. It’s a shame too because the company consistently has delivered one innovative design after another.
More recently when the Chrysler 400 sedan became a surprise hit, it’s success prompted the company to focus on other large directives of it’s platform. This was great in a time when gas prices were low. Trucks were also becoming ever popular and most of the ones sold by Chrysler’s Dodge and eventually Ram division had large V8 engines.
The problem of course was that gas prices never remain low for ever. Automotive product planning requires a 4 to 5 year planning window on what the future might require. Chrysler placed it’s bets on big trucks, SUVs and it’s ever growing line up of V8 powered performance cars. That’s what was doing well for the company when gas prices were at all time recent lows.
Meanwhile Chrysler’s mid-sized and compact offerings were suffering. The 200 had finally become a world class design. It’s sleek lines suggested a more expensive car. Far more elegant that any Sonata, Camry or Accord, only the new Malibu could match this level of exterior style. It’s beauty even extended to the interior, an area where Chrysler was usually weak. With well laid out controls and nice materials, the 200 had finally avenged the ugly car of the first generation. Yet despite all of this goodness, somehow the 200 still managed to consistently lags behind the competition. A wonderful design is no longer enough in the tough midsize family sedan market.
The 200 can even be had with all wheel drive, something thats not available on any Accord, Malibu, Camry, Sonata. Only the Fusion as of the 2016 model year could match that feature. Quite frankly, the 200 is the best looking sedan from Chrysler since the 400 and deserves to be saved. Fix it not nix it.
It was a similar story for Chrysler’s compact offering the Dart. Despite attractive looks, the Dart never stacked up well against the Focus and Cruise, or the Mazda 3, Corolla and Civics of the world. At first glance its difficult to know why. After publication after publication found the Dart lacking in refinement when up against (u fill in the blank), it became clear that the Dodge/Fiat effort was not meeting expectations. But then again Fiat is like a beautiful hooker. Nice to look at, but maybe not worth the STDs and drama they can bring into your life.
Is Chrysler just not good at building smaller cars?
Could it be that after 30 some years, the company has conceded defeat and decided to retire it’s smaller cars all together? It would seem so if it can’t find someone to build the troubled pair (Dart and 200). The initiative that started in the late ’60s to bring small fuel efficient cars into Chrysler’s American line up may have finally ended.
This time it’s not the slow separation from Mitsubishi, but a shotgun divorce from Fiat who’s small car expertise has been squandered with awful toys like the Fiat 500. While Chrysler is not separating itself from Fiat, it should pass on it’s partner’s small car expertise and concentrate on what it does well: build trucks and big cars be they Jeeps, Dodge or Chrysler all or rear wheel drive things. Chrysler has positioned itself to become the Hardees/Carl Jr. of the automotive world with beefy manly V8 powered cars and trucks that can tow houses.
If there was ever a time that Fiat-Chrysler could use a small car partner who knew what they were doing, it would be now. Where is Mitsubishi when the folks in Auburn Hills needs them most?
Mitsubishi the once proud maker of cars as futuristic robots of our imagination, is in no better position. It’s become a shadow of it’s former self. If Chrysler could somehow dump (or be dumped) by the bosses in Italy, it might be the best thing for the company now. Both Chrysler and Mitsubishi have a storied history with a long list of successful joint ventures.
As in previous versions of the replaying narrative, Chrysler does have some compelling products up its sleeve. The new Pacifica is beautiful and advances a category that Chrysler originated. Even the current marketing of Dodge as a He Man collective of rubber burning good olde boys (and girls) is cool. How long that will last has a lot to do with fuel prices and the energy outlook on the horizon.
It’s not too late to save the 200 and the Dart… well maybe not the Dart. Somehow I think more Americans would fall for a true Fiat Giulietta without the Dodge treatment, but that’s another subject. For now building smaller or more efficient cars with the an attitude that are different from Dodge but less luxurious than Chrysler might be the companies future. Oddly enough there might be a case for bringing back the Eagle or heaven forbid the old Plymouth brand back.
Perhaps Chrysler is a dancer who has just not found the right partner. I would have guessed Fiat was a dud from the beginning, after all they were never known for quality – just passionate design (just like Chrysler). Mopar needs a partner with opposite strengths to bring out it’s best moves.
We can only hope that there will always be a Chrysler Corporation in the future. Who know who might own them, but if they continue to make the interesting (if sometimes irrelevant) cars that they are known for, there will always be a case for bailing them out.