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Chrysler's transformed 200 leaves Sebring far behind


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Chrysler's transformed 200 leaves Sebring far behind

Changes made inside and out to boost looks, performance

Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

Los Angeles— Chrysler Group LLC wants to be a contender in the critical midsize car market with the Chrysler 200, erasing as many traces as possible from its forerunner, the outgoing Sebring.

The Sebring, which has fared poorly in the market, was stripped and received extensive design and engineering work as Chrysler remade the vehicle.

The interior was stripped and redone with more content added. The car also got a lot of new exterior sheet metal and a new V-6 under the hood. The suspension and steering were redone. A six-speed dual dry clutch transmission will be added to the car next springChrysler thinks the round-the-clock effort, since new management with Fiat SpA took over in June 2009, is enough of a transformation to warrant the name change to the 200. The 200 was unveiled Thursday, at the second and final press preview day of the LA Auto Show.

"I was astonished it was the Sebring because there is no trace of Sebring left," said analyst Aaron Bragman of IHS Automotive in Northville, after test-driving the 200. "It is no longer an embarrassment. The materials are as good, if not better than the Ford Fusion."

Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, after taking over, quickly concluded Chrysler could not afford to continue to offer a weak car in such a high-volume segment.

"We changed everything except the roofline and doors," said Olivier Francois, head of the Chrysler brand as well as its Fiat counterpart, the Lancia brand. He would have changed those as well, if he had more than a year to work on it.

Klaus Busse, who oversees interior design, said management deserves credit for the overhaul.

"It started out as a Band-Aid to fix the Sebring, but the new management said it is not enough," he said.

Francois said better handling was imperative so the car can be exported to Europe to be sold as a Lancia.

He said the 2011 Chrysler 200 will go from being nonexistent in the segment to a competitive offering against the likes of the Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu.

Any uptick would be incremental sales given how poorly the Sebring has done in the market. Chrysler had sold fewer than 36,000 Sebrings through October of this year in the United States.

Chrysler's decision to invest in such a comprehensive overhaul for a vehicle about to be replaced impressed analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics in Birmingham.

"It shows they are a more gutsy company than I thought. They were willing to retool for a shorter run and less volume."

Even if Chrysler is only a bit player, the segment is so large that any improvement could translate into nice volumes, said Rebecca Lindland of IHS Automotive in Lexington, Mass.

The 2011 Chrysler 200 sedan will be available in four models and starts at $19,995 including $750 in destination charges. Sales start later this year.

"The Sebring is the ugliest car in North America so anything you do to it makes it better," said Hall. "But the modifications are strong."

Marchionne said the 200 and its sister, the Dodge Avenger, received the most cash in terms of capital expenditure and R&D "but will probably show the most visible signs of the surgery."

The 200 convertible will be shown at the New York auto show.

"What they spent time and money on made a difference, Lindland said.

In Los Angeles, Chrysler also showed a 200 S model; the S is a new performance trim level similar to Dodge's R/T models that have more performance, unique wheels and other touches.

Ralph Gilles, Chrysler head of design, said "S" could be added to vehicles like the 300 next year.

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20101119/AUTO04/11190327/Chrysler’s-transformed-200-leaves-Sebring-far-behind#ixzz15jduGyNl

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