Chrysler 200 sedan was a strong seller in April

Chrysler 200 sedan was a strong seller in April

Call it tweaking the plan, call it product development on the run, but however you rate it, there’s no doubting the fact that Chrysler Group is making a name for itself as one of the industry’s more adaptable players. This week alone, group CEO Sergio Marchionne has revealed new details of selected future vehicle programmes. Glenn Brooks, the analyst behind just-auto’s PLDB forward model database, takes a look at what’s coming and when.

Chrysler

With sales of the new 200 sedan more than doubling last month to 8,274 units versus the 4,053 Sebrings sold in April 2010, the Chrysler brand has at long last found its feet in the US market’s most popular car segment. Certainly, it’s got a long way to go to catch the country’s best selling car, the Toyota Camry (30,443 sold in April), but clearly, fleet and private buyers are responding to the news that Chrysler cars are vastly more competitive than they were even 12 months ago. The company’s own data also reveals that 9,078 units of the 200 Sedan were built in April (plus 2,079 units of the new 200 Convertible) - Chrysler does indeed seem to be on its way back as a serious player in the mid-sized car market.

Chrysler’s larger models such as the 300 Sedan and Town & Country minivan will continue for some years yet. The 300 was rebodied at the start of 2011, while the T&C had a major facelift as well as a new 3.6-litre V6. Their replacements are both due in 2014 and it is now believed that they will both sit on the forthcoming Fiat-Chrysler E-Evoluzione platform.

E-Evo is a front- and all-wheel drive architecture, so expect the successors to today’s Chrysler Group muscle cars such as the 300 SRT8 as well as the Dodge Charger (a Super Bee derivative is due to appear for the 2012 model year) to have standard AWD. Purists might flinch at the front-drive bias of the mechanicals but the RWD/AWD Mercedes-Benz architecture that underpins the 300, Charger and Challenger isn’t exactly in the first flush of youth. Not to mention the fact that one of the fastest growing brands in the USA, Audi, has always had FWD-based platforms, even for its super-sedans.

Dodge

The Chrysler 200’s twin, the Dodge Avenger, is also selling at far higher levels since it was facelifted and re-engineered late last year. The replacements for both these cars are due to enter production at the Sterling Heights (SHAP) plant in Michigan from late 2012. Both will be built on Fiat Group’s new Compact Wide architecture – the current models use a modified Mitsubishi Galant platform.

With a combined 19,216 units of the 200 Sedan, 200 Convertible and Dodge Avenger built at SHAP in April, Chrysler is already in the midst of a mid-sized revival. On current trends, by the start of 2013, it should be in a position to be building an annual combined 300,000+ of these cars’ replacements – for reasons unknown, this is far more than it has thus far spoken of in presentations to analysts. It certainly seems that under-promising and over-delivering might be the new philosophy for the group.

As for smaller cars, Dodge will soon be leading that assignment at a Group level. The Caliber will replaced in late 2011 and not before time: only 17,169 were built in the first four months of 2011, compared to a still only modest 23,871 units for the equivalent period of 2010. Hopefully this time around, we’ll see the four-door sedan bodystyle which Americans demand in this segment (not even the Toyota Matrix, a Corolla-based hatchback, has found much favour).

The platform to be used for the Caliber replacement will be Compact Wide. This model, the name of which is yet to be revealed, will also see the first application of ZF’s new nine-speed automatic gearbox in a Chrysler Group vehicle. What’s more, a Fiat-badged version of this car is also due to be built in China from 2012. A greenfield plant in the city of Changsha (Hunan province) is presently under construction as part of the Italian vehicle maker’s new joint venture with Guangzhou Auto.

Finally, the smallest of all small cars built by Chrysler Group, the Fiat 500 and its convertible derivative. The Toluca plant in Mexico is now building both but it would appear that the stated annual production rate of 100,000 is some way off: Chrysler’s own numbers show that in April only 4,696 units of the ‘sedan’ were manufactured, plus 792 cabrios. To be fair, cars for the Brazilian market are supposed to make up half of that 100,000 annual total so it will be worth watching to see how production is in a few months’ time. A five-door version of the 500 is also said by some sources to be under development for a late 2011 launch in the Americas.

Ram

Easily the most important product for Ram's division in the near future will be the 2013 model year Ram 1500 pick-up, which is likely to change names to Ram 150. This all-new model is expected to appear at a US auto show early in 2012, and to be in showrooms by mid-year. Chrysler’s bankruptcy meant that the development programme for the Ram 1500 successor’s was delayed, with the knock-on effect of it now hitting the market around the same time as Ford’s next F-150 (codename: P552). Chrysler is therefore presumed to be pulling out all stops to get its truck launched first.

After the arrival of the new Ram 150 will come the Heavy Duty versions, the Ram 250-550. These should start to appear by mid-2013 and will likely be manufactured at the Saltillo Assembly in the Mexican state of Coahuila. The Ram 1500 replacement should be built at Chrysler’s Warren Truck plant in Michigan.

Chrysler is also doing something particularly interesting in the segment just below that in which today’s Ram 1500 competes. A new model, provisionally badged ‘Ram 100’ is set to replace the existing Dodge Dakota in the fourth quarter of 2012. Instead of the present vehicle’s Chrysler Group ‘ND’ frame platform, the new model will be more or less a Dodge Durango with a cargo box where the SUV’s rear seats and trunk would be. That also means a Mercedes-Benz platform: that of the soon to be obsolete second generation M-Class, which Chrysler uses as the basis for the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Jeep

In the absence of the big production numbers for which the Dodge Ram pick-up series was once famous for, Jeep division has in recent times become a major group force in light truck manufacturing. The profits being generated by the Grand Cherokee are presumed to be substantial, with an impressive 51,686 built between 1 January and 30 April 2011, with 13,340 manufactured in April alone. Earlier generations of this big SUV sold by the hundreds of thousands annually in the previous decade and it’s not hard to see a return to 200,000 Grand Cherokees or more in 2012 on present trends, even with the present ramp up for Ford’s all-new Explorer rival gathering steam.

A big question mark for Jeep is where gasoline prices go now. Further rises could well cause a fall-off in demand for the Grand Cherokee in particular, especially as there is no diesel engine option in North America for the vehicle (a VM Motori V6 diesel will soon be launched in Europe). Right now, gasoline pump prices are floating near the levels that so undermined consumer confidence three years ago, leading to a collapse in the availability of vehicle purchase loans.

If banks start to slow lending again, and if gasoline prices head further north, consumers will no doubt seek more fuel-efficient models. Luckily, Chrysler has war gamed this scenario and a new generation of Jeeps under development right now promises to be lighter and, handily, more car-like to drive, giving them added appeal.

The Jeep ‘C-SUV’ due for launch in 2013 will be one of the first new vehicles developed under this way of thinking. Before then, Fiat-developed Multiair cylinder heads will be fitted to Chrysler’s Pentastar V6, meaning that heavy SUVs such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and many other group vehicles powered by this 3.6-litre gasoline engine will soon have far better fuel economy.

Lest anyone think that Jeep division is going soft, a 465hp (347kW) 6.4-litre V8 is to be launched as a new range-topping SRT8 variant for the Grand Cherokee in July. Perhaps to draw the sting from any negative publicity that might have resulted, Chrysler made a point of announcing plans to federalise the European markets GC’s V6 diesel as it unveiled the monster SRT8 derivative at the recent New York motor show. Going after the big bucks that high priced gas guzzlers have always generated for US-based OEMs is entirely understandable. But at long last, Chrysler Group also now seems to realise that readying more fuel-efficient powertrains for the possibility of West Texas Intermediate spiking to US$150+ per barrel, is insurance well worth having.

See also: Global current and future (to 2025) vehicle database

US: Chrysler returns to profit