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NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

Chrysler dealers praise new, upgraded models, CEO

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Chrysler dealers praise new, upgraded models, CEO

Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

Chrysler Group LLC's product renewal starts now, in a game of catch-up that coincides with the slow rebound of the industry.

"I was knocked out and blown away," Carl Galeana of Van Dyke Dodge in Warren said of the 2011 lineup, shown to about 1,700 U.S. dealers and 700 more from Canada, Mexico and international markets Tuesday in Orlando. They can begin ordering Thursday.

CEO Sergio Marchionne, whom many of the dealers had never seen in person, left them "highly motivated in an unassuming way," Galeana said.

While the meeting was private, Chrysler publicly released pictures of some of the 16 all-new or significantly upgraded vehicles going into production this year.

Marchionne and his team announced that the revamped Chrysler Sebring sedan and convertible have been renamed the Chrysler 200, and confirmed that the 2011 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger are getting 8-speed automatic transmissions; 9-speeds are in the works.

Chrysler also teased dealers with a peek at the Dodge Viper replacement.

As the nose of a sexy sports car appeared on stage, Marchionne told dealers it would be vehicle No. 17 in Chrysler's revamped lineup. Chrysler has said the Viper, discontinued this year, could return in 2012.

The key areas of improvement across the lineup: new Pentastar V-6 engines, six- and eight-speed automatic transmissions and improved suspensions as well as new sheet metal to give each brand a more distinctive look.

Perhaps the biggest area of upgrades is in the passenger compartments, where hard plastic and cheap-looking interiors will be replaced by softer, higher-quality materials, visually appealing instrument panels and gauges, more-comfortable seats and steering wheels with integrated controls.

Industry analysts are unsure if it will be enough to pull Chrysler out of the basement of the domestic automakers. But all agree that an overhaul was imperative, and that the volume of upgrades should create enough buzz to draw consumers into Chrysler showrooms.

Some will be stars, but not all will be great," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends for TrueCar.com in Santa Monica, Calif. "But it's a good start."

Timing may be fortuitous.

"Having no product has not hurt them too much because they were not launching new vehicles in a crappy economy when people weren't buying cars," said analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics in Birmingham.

Chrysler's new vehicles "are coming out close to their sale date, so they will be fresh in peoples' minds," Hall said.

Stephanie Brinley, senior consultant with EMC Strategic Communications in Troy, thinks it was a wise strategy for Chrysler to lift the curtain on its new lineup at the dealers meeting, rather than at an auto show.

"It was very smart to show the vehicles to dealers first, in a relationship that's been badly bruised," she said. Chrysler terminated 789 dealers in bankruptcy restructuring and underwent arbitration hearings in an effort to avoiding reinstatement.

Chrysler needs energized dealers to sell the lineup.

"We must all be prepared to capitalize on this moment," Marchionne told them, according to Chrysler. "No matter how creative the advertising or how beautifully designed the vehicles, this alone will not be enough to achieve our ambitious sales goals. For that, we will need trained and dedicated personnel, world-class facilities and, most importantly, your leadership."

The event was tightly controlled by Chrysler. Dealers passed through metal detectors, had their bags searched and were stripped of their cell phones. There was heavy security, and attendees said they were warned that anyone caught with a recording device would be arrested.

Marchionne impressed dealers, including Maryland dealer Tammy Darvish of DARCARS Automotive Group.

"I enjoyed listening to Sergio. He was very sharp and focused," said Darvish, who was active in fighting dealer closures.

Dealers also applauded renaming the Sebring.

"It was the best thing they could have done," Galeana said. "Sebring is a tired name."

But the new name could be confusing -- not falling logically between the large Chrysler 300 and the tiny Fiat 500, which itself should not be confused with the Ford Five Hundred large car.

Hall said Chrysler would have been smarter to go with "Nassau" or "Newport," which were among the names under consideration.

Either way, "it's expensive to launch a new name," Brinley said of renaming the Sebring.

Updated minivans also were shown Tuesday.

The interior of the Town & Country is "so much better," said Hall. Some of the credit goes to the fact the Windsor, Ontario, plant also makes the VW Routan, and Chrysler "saw what VW was using and how to do it." The Dodge Grand Caravan was referred to as the "man van" to distinguish the two.

"I think the design changes will put the minivans back ahead of the competition," said Ken Lewenza, president of the Canadian Auto Workers. "For the last four or five years, we cheaped out. No more cheap plastic."

Chrysler's next challenge is marketing and advertising the torrent of new and upgraded vehicles, as well as training dealerships' sales staffs.

"They can't launch 'em and leave 'em," said Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J.

From The Detroit News: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100915/AUTO01/9150317/1148/auto01/Chrysler-dealers-praise-new--upgraded-models--CEO#ixzz0zbd5YL1R

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