Chrysler races to upgrade its lineupMon, 01 Mar 2010 00:00:00 -0800
In a bid to improve its lineup before a fleet of new Fiat-based vehicles arrives in 2012, Chrysler Group is rushing new features and equipment into 15 reworked vehicles.
The equipment, such as a Fiat dual-clutch, six-speed transmission and a new Chrysler V6, will boost fuel economy, improve driving dynamics and spiff up drab interiors, all areas in which Chrysler has fared poorly in consumer surveys.
All the vehicles will be on sale by the first quarter of next year.
But the rush of upgrades is straining Chrysler's engineering staff, which has been working overtime for months, and it will hand a huge challenge to the automaker's marketers to tell shoppers about all the changes.
Improvements planned for the Chrysler Sebring mid-sized sedan tell the story. Sources say the car will get new front and rear styling, a new interior and a revised suspension for improved ride and handling. The Sebring will be the first vehicle with a Fiat-engineered dual-clutch transmission, which will be offered with Chrysler's new Pentastar V6 engine.
The automaker plans to begin manufacturing the car in the fourth quarter at its Sterling Heights, Mich., plant.
From its launch as a 2007 model, the Sebring was a slow seller and failed to make a mark on a segment dominated by the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. The Sebring was widely criticized for its cheap-plastic interior, unresponsive powertrain, mediocre handling and plain styling.
Chrysler's previous owner, Cerberus Capital Management, had decided not to spend the money to make the Sebring competitive. When Sergio Marchionne took over as Chrysler Group CEO last June, he reversed that decision. Marchionne told Automotive News that the changes are so extensive that the Sebring name will be dropped.
The Fiat dual-clutch transmission, which can be shifted manually or automatically, promises the fuel economy and versatility of a manual with the ease of an automatic.
Of the 15 vehicles, eight are being redesigned or re-engineered. Seven others are getting significant midcycle alterations. A 16th vehicle, the Fiat 500, will be sold at Chrysler dealerships.
Redesigned models include the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Production is scheduled to begin in May or June.
The five-seat Grand Cherokee will be the first vehicle to get Chrysler's 3.6-liter, 280-hp Pentastar aluminum V6 engine.
Following in the fourth quarter will be a redesigned seven-seat crossover to replace the Dodge Durango. The 2011 model is built on the same platform as the Grand Cherokee.
Also in the pipeline for the fourth quarter are the re-engineered 2011 Dodge Charger and its Chrysler 300 sibling and the Chrysler Town & Country.
These re-engineered models also get the new Pentastar V6 engine. Also expected is the North American debut of the Fiat 500.
Revision for Wrangler
Vehicles getting important revisions include the Jeep Wrangler, coming in the third quarter. Wranglers sold with diesel engines, outside the United States, will get stop-start technology, which saves fuel by turning off the engine when the car stops.
Wranglers will also get exterior styling modifications.
By year end, the Dodge Avenger sedan will receive the same suspension and powertrain improvements as its Sebring sibling, with just minor styling tweaks, such as new front and rear bumpers and a new grille.
Much work ahead
The Pentastar V6 engine will arrive in other vehicles, including the Dodge Grand Caravan and Journey, by the end of the year.
Jim Hall, analyst with 2953 Analytics in Birmingham, Mich., says Chrysler has its work cut out for it to reconnect with consumers after its bankruptcy.
"Product is only part of the equation," he says. "They've got to get the consideration up. They have twice the challenge GM does.
"Chrysler has to get the product right and the marketing at the same time."
CHRYSLER'S PRODUCT OFFENSIVE
Chrysler Group is giving its existing lineup new equipment and upgrades, sources say. It also is introducing a redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee and a Dodge Durango replacement this year and expects the North American debut of the Fiat 500 in the 4th quarter. Times are for planned start of manufacturing.
Redesigned or re-engineered
1st quarter 2010
Ram Chassis Cab: Redesigned chassis for Ram 3500, 4500 and 5500
Jeep Grand Cherokee: New platform; first to get Chrysler's Pentastar V6 engine
Dodge Durango replacement: 7-seat sibling of Grand Cherokee; unibody construction, unlike current Durango, which is body on frame; Pentastar V6
Dodge Charger: New sheet metal; heavily revised LX platform, including new rear suspension; Pentastar V6 and revised V8s; new interior
Chrysler Town & Country: New front end; Pentastar V6; new interior; sharply differentiated from the Dodge Grand Caravan
Chrysler Sebring sedan and convertible: New front and rear; Pentastar V6; new interior; revised suspension; first with Fiat-engineered 6-speed dual-clutch transmission; new name
Chrysler 300: New sheet metal; heavily revised LX platform, including new rear suspension; Pentastar V6 and revised V8s; new interior
Jeep Liberty: Styling tweaks
Jeep Wrangler: Diesel Wranglers, not sold in the U.S., will get stop-start; modified exterior design; Pentastar V6 in 2011
Jeep Patriot: Revised exterior
Dodge Avenger: New front and rear bumpers and grille; major interior changes; upgrades to suspension; Pentastar V6
Dodge Grand Caravan: Minor styling tweaks; new interior; Pentastar V6
Dodge Journey: New interior; restyled front end; Pentastar V6
Jeep Compass: Revised exterior
By Luca Ciferri and Bradford Wernle- Automotive News