Hellcat Challenger Dodgebrand halo model arriving later this year

Hellcat Challenger Dodge-brand halo model arriving later this year.

Chrysler, Dodge Execs Confident in Brand-Shifting Strategy

Making Dodge a performance-oriented marque doesn’t mean volumes will decline, says brand CEO Tim Kuniskis. “We sold 100,000 Dodge Chargers last year and that's high volume,” he tells WardsAuto.

ELKHART LAKE, WI – In revealing its 5-year game plan through 2018 a little more than a week ago, the Chrysler brand disclosed plans to add a new small 100 sedan companion to the current 200 in 2016, a new fullsize CUV in 2017 and a new midsize CUV in 2018, as it looks to more than double annual sales volume by 2018.

Does that mean volume takes priority over promoting a luxury-brand image?

Sure does, insists Al Gardner, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Chrysler brand.

“We're simply returning to our roots,” he says here in an interview at the annual Midwest Automotive Media Assn. spring rally of new vehicles entering or soon to enter the market. “We need to get back to our origins and shed the image of selling premium cars and focus instead on selling cars with lots of premium content at an affordable price, vehicles representing greater value because they are value-priced.

“We need to get back to that in order to grow the brand. That's what Walter P. Chrysler was all about when he founded this company back in 1925.”

The automaker lost its way over the years, but now is back on the right road, Gardner contends.

“Remember when we sold the Fifth Avenue and Corinthian leather?” he says of the days when tuxedo-clad movie and TV legend Ricardo Montalban pitched cars for Chrysler. “We had a history of changing our mind. We weren't building premium cars, but we were marketing them like they were.

“We haven't been doing that for a long time. We want to be known as more mainstream than premium.”

Gardner says the 2012 “Imported from Detroit” Super Bowl ad was the beginning of setting the stage for more mainstream and an end to premium.

“To play mainstream, we needed more vehicles. We had three – the 200 and 300 sedans and Town & Country van. We need a compact sedan and midsize and fullsize crossovers added to double the number of offerings and be in all the mainstream segments.”

Gardner declines to discuss platforms for the trio of new vehicles or what Fiat's role would be, nor does he detail individual sales volumes, saying only that with the addition of the new vehicles and upgrades to current models, he expects sales to soar from the 350,000-unit total for 2013 to at least 800,000 in 2018. He doesn’t rule out even more additions to the lineup in the future, though he declines to elaborate.

At the same 5-year briefing, Dodge revealed its own plans to specifically focus on being a performance division. In doing so, it will drop both the Caravan minivan cousin to the Chrysler Town & Country and the Dodge Avenger twin to the Chrysler 200 sedan.

“We will have a van and midsize sedan by ourselves,” Gardner says.

Though not getting into specifics about the Dodge Dart-based Chrysler 100 sedan, he says it will compete with the Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, and Honda Civic and “will not bump up against the Fiat 500 or 500 L sedans.”

As for only the Chrysler Div. offering a minivan, Gardner insists the move doesn't mean the market segment the automaker created under Lee Iacocca is in danger of disappearing.

“Today people don't buy a van for its outside looks, but rather for its inside function, like slide-open doors and folding seats. Coming up with a van that's beautiful and functional is our goal for the future," he says, noting a redesign is scheduled for 2016 when the Town & Country adds a hybrid version.

Tim Kuniskis, CEO of the Dodge brand, says the move to more performance-oriented vehicles doesn’t necessarily mean lower volume.

“We sold 100,000 Dodge Chargers last year, and that's high volume,” he tells WardsAuto here. “When it comes to performance, you have to make a distinction.

“There's Dodge mainstream performance that's high volume and there's SRT ultimate high performance that isn't high volume,” Kuniskis adds. “We offer 305-hp V-6 cars and 600-plus-hp, supercharged V-8 cars, yet 60% of all Chargers sold are with a V-6 and still have the performance looks and performance driving dynamics.

“When you have a 300-hp fullsize performance sedan that gets 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km) on the highway, there is no downside. Sure, you could go smaller and slower and get 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km), but for what? To save $2 in gas?”

When it comes to ultimate performance, Kuniskis says people think about SRT, R/T, Scatback and Hellcat, the latter two super-high-output versions of the ’15 Challenger that come out in the third quarter of this year. While low-volume models, they help attract people into Dodge showrooms where they may admire an SRT but only can afford the lower-line versions.

All Dodge vehicles will be known for performance under the new 5-year plan, not just the Charger and Challenger sedans, Kuniskis says.

"With a V-8 and rear-wheel drive, the Dodge Durango SUV fits the performance image, but the Dodge Journey needs to better fit,” he says. “I won't elaborate, but we have plans to do just that.

“Performance is never going to go away, but the manner in which we add performance is going to be different in the future,” he adds. “Is the V-8 going to go away (eventually)? Absolutely, but in their place we'll see different turbocharged and supercharged fours and V-6s, even some fast electrics. Performance will be forever.”

Like Gardner, Kuniskis won't elaborate on individual models’ projected volumes, but says the Dodge goal is to return to its current level of 600,000 unit sales in 2018.

“By dropping Caravan and Avenger, we naturally are going to lose volume, but we have 2,400 dealers and only 70 of them are stand-alone Dodge and have the rest of our corporation's products to sell,” he says.

“So we'll drop the Caravan and Avenger, but dealers have a Town & Country van or Ram truck or Jeep SUV in their showrooms to sell as well. We hope by 2018 to regain lost volume with new product we have coming.

“As new products evolve, higher volume will come,” Kuniskis says, though he admits two key new products – a compact sedan and hatchback smaller than the Dart – won’t arrive until 2018.

“I won't elaborate on those upcoming small cars," he says, “but we can grow that segment with hot cars.”

By hot, Kuniskis says he means performance models, but not ones that would compete against a Fiat Abarth.

Like Gardner, he won't elaborate on the small cars or the contribution from Fiat vehicles, nor will he rule out more additions to the Dodge lineup in the future – he just won't talk about them.

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