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Analysis: Chrysler 200 represents a new start


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Analysis: Chrysler 200 represents a new start

Chrysler's Olivier Francois introduces the 2011 Chrysler 200 at the two-day media preview event for the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show on Nov. 18.

Some argued Chrysler should admit defeat, stop building the Sebring and desert the family-sedan business until an all new car arrives in two or three years.

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By Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press

SAN FRANCISCO — If a single vehicle can embody everything that went wrong when Daimler, and later Cerberus, ran Chrysler, it's the Sebring, an unlovely and unloved midsize sedan that debuted in 2006, about the time DaimlerChrysler decided to amputate its U.S. arm.

Like Chrysler itself, the car now has a second chance as new management under Fiat works to revive the automaker. For 2011, the car is reborn as the Chrysler 200, with new looks and features to go with its new name.

The Sebring was doomed from the start. A victim of Daimler cost cutting, it hit the market without a single clear competitive advantage.

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It tanked, and Chrysler sank with it. The Sebring's inadequacies essentially shut the brand out of the family-car market.

As the Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion re-energized their brands, Chrysler became ever less relevant. In a market segment where more than 100,000 sales a year is the norm, the Sebring peaked at 87,865 in 2007 and barely rated an asterisk with 17,576 in 2009.

Chrysler aims to fix that with the 200 that it unveiled recently in San Francisco. It's the first major fruit of Chrysler's new relationship with Fiat. The vastly improved 200 is the bridge from Chrysler's past to a future model line under development with Fiat.

"The engineers and designers have done their job," said analyst Rebecca Lindland of IHS Automotive. "The 200 deserves at least to be considered. Now it's up to marketing to sell the heck out of it."

The Sebring sedan was such a disaster that some argued Chrysler should admit defeat, stop building it and desert the family-sedan business until an all new car arrives in two or three years.

Instead, Chrysler's new bosses from Fiat decided to spend millions of dollars to improve the car, restyle it, rename it and slug it out with leaders like the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata and Honda Accord.

"We are re-contenting the Chrysler brand" to repair the damage done under past owners Daimler and Cerberus, said Olivier Francois, who runs the Chrysler and Lancia brands. "We have taken (the vehicles) and put in more quality and power to live up to the customer's expectations. This is about the Chrysler brand."

The Chrysler 200, which goes on sale shortly, is a first step.

Beyond losing bushels of money, some analysts say every Sebring sedan diminished the value of Chrysler as a brand. It was a moving billboard for poor styling, quality and performance that made the company the butt of jokes.

"They needed to do this. The Sebring missed the mark. It was lower mid-pack at everything," said Stephanie Brinley, analyst with EMC Strategic Communications in Troy, Mich. "It's expensive to establish a new name, but the Sebring was bashed so badly that they had to."

Despite a long list of new and improved features, the 200's base price is $800 lower than the Sebring sedan. Across the model line, 200 prices are competitive with leading midsize sedans.

"It really is a whole new vehicle," Lindland said.

It also sends a message, both to customers and within Chrysler, where morale collapsed under Cerberus, that Fiat is serious about fixing the brand's image.

"They're saying, 'This is where we want to be,' " in terms of style, image and quality, she said. "They may not be all the way there yet, but sometimes you can fake it till you make it."



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