Growing Dodge Customer Base One Model at a Time

Delayed buildouts suggest Chrysler is looking for a way to keep Dodge showrooms filled until fresher product arrives or perhaps ease the transition to a smaller lineup. Not every brand has to cover every segment, a key executive says.

Aaron Foley, Associate Editor

July 31, 2013

7 Min Read
rsquo14 Durango arrives in October
’14 Durango arrives in October.

Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne has made it clear that long-range product plans for each of the auto maker’s brands are subject to revision at a moment’s notice.

He’s just never said how often those plans would change.

At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, Marchionne termed the company’s previously released future-product charts “living documents” when questioned why some of the expected models were delayed or no longer planned.

More tweaks have come since: A replacement for Chrysler’s 200 midsize sedan is in the works; a B-segment Jeep is slated to begin production in Italy; and a new small van is on the way for Ram.

Additional vehicles have been talked about publicly, including a range-topping Jeep, a diesel-powered Wrangler, an expansion of the Maserati and Alfa Romeo lineups and one minivan, instead of two, for the entire group.

But until recent weeks, there was little chatter about the venerable Dodge brand, which turns 100 in 2015.

Press reports now indicate a new rear-drive platform is being considered that would be shared by the Chrysler, Dodge and Alfa Romeo brands.

And industry sources say Chrysler will extend the run of its Dodge Avenger midsize sedan until 2015, a year longer than originally planned. It also will keep the current-generation Grand Caravan minivan in the lineup until 2017, selling it alongside an all-new Chrysler Town & Country minivan due in 2015. The Challenger performance coupe, reportedly once slated to give way to an SRT Barracuda, now will be redesigned for ’15.

There are no indications the Avenger will be replaced by a new model once its run is over, nor are plans being whispered concerning a Dodge replacement for the Journey cross/utility vehicle, which is slated to give way to a Chrysler-brand model in 2016.

But the delayed buildouts suggest Chrysler is looking for a way to keep Dodge showrooms filled until fresher product arrives or perhaps ease the brand’s transition to a smaller lineup.

With Chrysler Group now stocked with four major brands and its SRT performance line, plus Fiat building its U.S. presence and Alfa on the way, executives say it is possible for each marque to be more sharply focused.

Dodge could survive and prosper even without a midsize sedan and CUV, they say. Fiat could get by with just small cars, while Ram could forge ahead without a small pickup.

Virtually all of Chrysler’s U.S. dealers now carry all four brands: Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram, meaning it might not be too difficult to move customers who come into showrooms with one model and brand in mind toward another vehicle and brand if it better fits their needs.

The goal would be to lessen product overlap and more clearly define Chrysler’s growing stable of brands, while eliminating the expense of developing and marketing vehicles that are too similar and aimed at the same buyer group.

Looking at the ’13 and ’14 model years alone, Fiat, Chrysler and Dodge each are missing entries in key segments. Fiat has nothing above a B-segment, while Dodge – the auto maker’s volume brand – lacks an A- or B-model sedan. Chrysler offers no compact car, SUV or CUV.

“Product takes time. You can’t change everything overnight,” Dodge President and CEO Tim Kuniskis tells WardsAuto.

But he also says not every brand has to cover every segment. Those market gaps might keep executives at other auto makers awake at night, but Kuniskis says brand equity trumps lineup breadth in Chrysler’s thinking, and a realistic look at how buyers shop may mean there are fewer holes to fill than it appears.

He points to the Fiat 500, which is an A-segment vehicle but competes against the larger B-segment Mini Cooper.

“On a piece of paper, you’d say they’re not competitors,” Kuniskis says. “(But) the reality is, every single customer cross-shopped the two and compared them – regardless of the fact that we say they’re different cars.

“It’s like saying an SUV and a CUV are two different cars. Absolutely not,” he adds. “The Durango customer is an SUV buyer. He is going to cross-shop a CUV because he needs that shape, that size, 7-passenger and that capability. He’s not going to go, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a CUV, I don’t want it.’”

Citing a company policy to not comment on future product, Kuniskis won’t directly address Dodge’s future in the midsize segment, but says it’s not necessary for the brand to continuously market a car like the Avenger. That customer base easily could be covered with the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart, he indicates.

Growing the customer base, which currently totals roughly 300,000 units annually among the three models, is more important than which model and brand are drawing customers to showrooms.

“We look at a spreadsheet of an industry, and we say ‘that’s an A-segment, that’s a B-segment, that’s a C-segment, this car competes with that car’…customers don’t do that,” Kuniskis says. “Customers come into our showroom today, and they’re looking for a sedan.”

The group-centric approach is reflected in dealerships. Discounting the Fiat brand, which markets its products in stand-alone showrooms, 91% of all Chrysler dealerships in the U.S. offer the primary four brands. The remaining 9% have two or three brands, but no dealers have a one-brand shop. Several dealers have specially trained sales staff to market and sell SRT-tuned vehicles, which still are coming into their own as the brand finds its legs.

Kuniskis says Dodge’s average buyer is 48, 10 years younger than the average customer for the Chrysler-brand, Ford or Chevrolet.

“Who wouldn’t want that guy coming into the showroom?” he says. “That’s the guy that’s going to grow with your group. He may buy a Jeep next. He may buy a Ram next.”

Splitting the Ram lineup from Dodge has allowed the auto maker to focus more specifically on its truck customers, while still having all the same products on a single showroom floor.

“We have Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge (and) Ram all in one showroom, and it’s all in our group,” he says, compared to, for example, stand-alone dealerships with General Motors or Ford brands.

“Tell me a brand that sells every single segment. Nobody does.”

Kuniskis predicts Dodge will deliver 600,000 vehicles worldwide this year. Because it is a volume leader in the Chrysler group, top executives say the brand is not in danger of going the way of Plymouth or Eagle, even if it offers a slimmer model lineup.

“That’s like saying Ford’s going away and they’re going to sell Lincolns. That’s like saying Chevy’s going away and they’re going to sell GMC,” Reid Bigland, Chrysler’s head of U.S. sales, tells WardsAuto.

Bigland notes Dodge sales are up 40% year-to-date from 2012. “I don’t think there’s another faster-growing brand in the market than the Dodge brand that’s stronger from a retail sales perspective.”

Both executives believe strongly in the ’14 Durango, which is heavily refreshed from the ’13 model and will have a stronger marketing campaign upon its release. It introduces an 8-speed transmission and has a new front and rear fascia and a more premium interior than its predecessor.

“We just invested hundreds of millions of dollars in that machine right there that’s not even in the market yet,” Bigland says. The SUV is due to arrive at dealers in October.

Marketing for the Durango has been “dark” for the past two years, Bigland says, but demand for the 7-passenger vehicle has risen in recent months.

“(The Durango) shares production with the Grand Cherokee,” he says. “The plant’s going five days a week, 24 hours a day, and we’ve been building as many (Durangos) as we can.”

Previous production data suggested Durango might migrate to another brand, something Bigland also dismisses. “It’s a completely new vehicle.”

The Dart compact also continues to see upgrades, particularly a 2.4L Multi-Air engine exclusive to a new GT model now arriving at dealerships.

“The Dart’s brand new, (and) the Dart, like all our products, continues to receive refinements, enhancements,” Bigland says. “The Dart is not dissimilar from any of our other products.”

Bigland emphasizes no formal announcement has been made about the Grand Caravan or Town & Country.

“It’s all just speculation,” says Bigland, Dodge’s former president who now heads the Ram brand.

But speculation about the future of Dodge should end immediately, he says.

“We just spent billions of dollars on the product portfolio on models that aren’t even a year old,” he says. “You’re going to invest billions of dollars in the brand and then the brand is going away?”

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About the Author(s)

Aaron Foley

Associate Editor, WardsAuto

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