Last month, Chrysler Canada sold 80 mid-size cars in the whole country. Disaster.
In one of the four big segments in Canada - pickups, crossovers, compact cars and mid-size cars - Chrysler's Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring have been invisible for years.
That, says Chrysler Canada president Reid Bigland, is why "we'll reduce the MSRP [manufacturer's suggested retail price]and come out of the chute aggressively. We have nothing to lose. We're going to take a very aggressive run at the mid-size market. As I said, we have nothing to lose."
Nothing to lose perfectly describes where the Chrysler Group finds itself 18 months after emerging from bankruptcy. Everyone at Chrysler knows the old way of doing things didn't work. Bigland, in fact, says that the last words anyone says at Chrysler now are, "This is how we used to do things." Say that and you'll find yourself out the door.
The truth is, it has been change or die for the 50,000 Chrysler employees left at work. After thousands of layoffs and a severe management purge under Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, those remaining see this as a chance to do something almost no one believes possible: survive, thrive and prosper.
"Really, this is just the beginning," says Ralph Gilles, the Montreal native who now runs the company's Dodge division, while also overseeing all of Chrysler Group design. Between now and the start of the new year, Chrysler will launch 16 new or seriously freshened models, each one with a radically more attractive interior, an upgraded exterior and power train and suspension/steering upgrades that threaten to make Chrysler's cars not only more pleasant to drive, but actually interesting and even fun in some cases.
Chrysler's mid-size cars are at the very heart of this makeover. Bigland says they were given special attention as the company poured about $5-billion (U.S.) into new products being launched in 2010. The barrage of upgraded, reworked and all-new vehicles started with the summer's arrival of the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Between now and the end of the year, the renovations are intended to show how serious Chrysler is about being a car company. These updates will also keep Chrysler in the game until a host of all-new models arrive from the alliance with managing partner Fiat SpA.
"I like to say we're in the ninth round like George Chuvalo throwing haymakers," says Bigland, whose big, sloping Gordie Howe shoulders and Popeye forearms are visual reinforcement for his ever-present sports analogies.
Chrysler's competitors just might find themselves bruised by the combination of dramatic price cuts and creative improvements to the company's mid-size cars. On both, nearly everything an owner sees or feels has been replaced: the seats, dash, centre console, door liners and instrument panel on the inside, along with the hood, grill, trunk lid, front and rear fenders, wheels and lamps on the outside.
On the Sebring, now renamed the 200, the roof and doors are the only exterior parts untouched. Underneath both models is a new suspension, transmission and V-6 engine - the 3.6-litre Pentastar (283 horsepower).
Most important of all, the 200 LX for 2011 will start at $19,995, down from the 2010 Sebring LX at $23,995. "And that's with $1,000 of added content," argues product strategy boss Richard Cox. "It's the most affordable mid-size car in car in Canada - about $6,000 under a (four-cylinder) Honda Accord." Canadians should also note that in Canada, the 200 will sell for less than in the United States, where the base price is $22,220.
"We are reinventing our mid-size cars and quite frankly, we had to," says Cox.
Quite frankly, Chrysler has needed to reinvent nearly everything in its lineup short of the Ram pickup. In the last reliability study by Consumer Reports, the Chrysler brand came in dead last.
"The Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep brands are saddled with dated models," said the magazine. "Twelve of the 20 models that CR had sufficient data for, rate below average in reliability. None of Chrysler Corp.'s models score above average.
David Champion, head of CR's auto test operations, says it takes five or 10 years to rebuild a car company's reputation, but he's encouraged by what he's seen of the product renaissance unfolding at Chrysler with the help of Fiat.
The overhaul of what has become the 200 "might be the most extensive I've ever seen," he says.
"The Sebring has come from, 'Don't even bother looking at one because it was such an awful vehicle,' to one that I would possibly look at," he told The Detroit Free Press after driving the car, but not conducting an official review. "The general driving dynamics are much improved to the point that the 200 would be on a list of family sedans I would consider purchasing."
This current product barrage, which includes serious revamps to such core models as the Dodge Grand Caravan and Town & Country minivans, the Dodge Journey crossover and the Dodge Charger large sedan, along with the arrival of a brand-new, Mercedes-based Durango large SUV, is Chrysler's first real opportunity to "reposition our boring standing in the marketplace," said Marchionne on a recent conference call to discuss the company's financial results (an operating profit of $239-million (U.S.) in the third quarter).
Also getting midlife upgrades are the Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot. Each is receiving a new engine, either a new four-cylinder one from Fiat or a V-6 Chrysler developed. Both are supposed to offer improved fuel economy. Naturally, the Dodge Charger's made-in-Canada stable mate, the Chrysler 300, will be fully redesigned, too.
The 200, says Bigland, will be a key measure of how the public accepts the transformation of Chrysler, at least in these early stages.
Klaus Busse, a Mercedes-Benz expatriate who chose to stay with Chrysler to the shock and dismay of friends and family, has led a sweeping transformation in the 200's interior - where richer-looking and feeling materials and tasteful use of chrome have replaced a hodgepodge of plastic and cheap-looking corner cutting in the old Sebring.
"I stayed at the company because I could see in the design studio what was coming," says Busse. "This was a chance to really do something - to make a difference. We've been working 24/7 on this; the only days off we had in the last year were Christmas and New Year's. But we think it's worth it."
The question is: Will the buying public think so?