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Chrysler – When Design does – and doesn’t – sell…

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News today that Chrysler has declared bankruptcy. Wow – really, it’s only 30 years to late. In reality, Chrysler was dead back in 1979 when they took government loans to stave off bankruptcy.

I remember that time pretty vividly. Within a year, Chrysler was on their way to “recovery” thanks to Lee Iacocca, and the infamous “K” car. And, the Dodge Aries K was the first car I ever drove – back in 1980 in a drivers-ed class. The second car I drove during that same driving class was a Toyota Corolla – and the quality difference at that point made me understand why the Japanese car industry was overtaking the world.

Toyota, Mazda, Datsun (now Nissan), Honda and Subaru, 30 years ago – built cars that were cheap. Sure…maybe the interior plastics didn’t mix well with sunshine over time. But they ran. And ran. Didn’t break. Never left you stranded.

At the same time, it seems the “Big 3” were still trying to believe they were on top of the world like they were 10-15 years earlier. Yet, both the style of cars they built, along with the quality of the product the offered….well, just plain sucked!

The Japanese – they listened. They paid attention to what the customer was asking for. Quality, reliability, value – and style. About the time Chrysler was getting lucky with the whole “minivan” concept (which I believe is what truly rescued them back in the 80’s) – Japanese cars went from being “cheap, reliable, and funky” to “good value, reliable, and attractive”. Just like Korean manufacturers like Hyundai is currently doing.

Ford, and to some degree, General Motors, have finally started to figure all of this out. The Ford Fusion – I drove one as a rental car a few months back – yes, it’s built on the same platform (as well as, I think, the same assembly line) as the Mazda 6. And, I thought it was finally something that would make me look at choices other than a Camry or Accord. The Chevy Malibu – same thing. But the Chrysler Sebring I drove last year – what a piece of crap!

For $20K – you get something that can’t merge in traffic, makes you think you could disassemble the interior with a dull screwdriver, and had a funky smell of plastic release agent that made me think that on a long distance drive, would be more effective at getting one high that peyote! Not to mention it’s industrial ugly.

Even the Chrysler 300 – with it’s “gangster” look – aggressive, yes, but one design straight “from the hood” doesn’t cut it. The only “affordable” car that they now build that is even slightly attractive is the Challenger – a car that steals all its design cues from the 1960’s muscle-car hey-day.

I remember back about 15+ years ago when Chrysler came out with it’s “cab-forward” look  – where they seemed to think they could lead with “style” – like this would cover the other, important things people look for in a purchase they’ll pay for now for 4-6 years – things like reliability, resale value, and “lasting style”. For a time – I had hope they would do it. Now, the market has spoken – and with sales down over 40% from last year, the lines they’ve brought out the last 2-3 years just don’t resonate with people.

Here’s the thing. Style gets them into the showroom – the first time. The rest of the car keeps them coming back. Example – Porsche. BMW. Ferrari. Jaguar.  All these companies build cars that go “beyond” style. Performance and resale value keep owners in these cars, and to a large degree, they don’t rest on their past successes – they keep the brands growing. New designs that break with the past (to varying degrees) – yet still keep customers excited. On the lower end of the price-scale – look at BMW with the Mini, Volkswagen, and any of the Japanese manufacturers. Even when sales are down, they retain their customer base. If style itself isn’t the selling point (i.e. the Toyota Prius looks like a freakin’ toaster) – it’s multiple other selling points.

I hope Chrysler can get their act together. With the concessions that both the unions and lendors are giving them, combined with Fiat’s eventual control of the company – there is a glimmer of hope for them. My fear is – if you can’t make a company work when you’re owned by Mercedes when the economy was good, how are you going to do it when the economy sucks and you’re owned by Fiat?

However they do it – they had better make their cars go beyond “style”. Give us substance as well.

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