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Sebring Nameplate May Vanish

The Sebring disappointed many critics right out of the gate following its redesign for ’07.

DETROIT – Chrysler Group LLC is so intent on making a clean break from the auto maker’s turbulent past, it is contemplating a name change this year for its core-brand midsize car.

The beleaguered Chrysler Sebring is among nine vehicles that will benefit this calendar year from upgrades so significant the auto maker calls them “new.”

The slow-selling Sebring, which has become a poster child for underachievement, is an impediment to Chrysler’s post-bankruptcy resurgence because a competitive midsize car is critical to the success full-line auto makers.

Consequently, it has the special attention of Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne. “It’s not where I think it needs to be; we’re aware of this,” Marchionne says at the North American International Auto Show here. As a result, Chrysler designers and engineers have “torn apart” the car.

When the revised model is launched in the fourth quarter, “You’ll see a completely different animal.” Marchionne promises. “Actually, we were having a discussion about what name this animal should have.”

He adds, without dropping any hints: “The jury’s still out.”

A dramatic interior upgrade is expected to be among the improvements made to the new car, which is scheduled for a complete overhaul in 2013. That’s when the auto maker is set to migrate its D-segment vehicles to a platform supplied by partner Fiat Auto SpA.

The Sebring disappointed many critics right out of the gate following its redesign for ’07. Industry observers had expected a “baby Chrysler 300,” but its front-wheel-drive layout could not accommodate the stylish proportions of the larger rear-driver car, the auto maker’s designers claimed.

Sebring sales plummeted 61.7% last year compared with 2008, according to Ward’s data. However, the segment slipped just 17.8%.

Chrysler’s presence on the show floor – though packaged by a stylish new display – is devoid of fresh product. “I have what I have,” says a resigned Marchionne. “It’s not as if we have nothing.”

Marchionne promises a revamped lineup by year’s end, setting the stage for a more upbeat Detroit show in 2011.

On the strength of nine “new” product introductions, 75% of Chrysler’s showroom will be upgraded before next January. The auto maker promises a 100% turnover by 2012.

The nine new vehicles are the ’11 Sebring sedan and convertible; Jeep Grand Cherokee midsize SUV; Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger fullsize sedans; a Dodge fullsize cross/utility vehicle; Ram chassis cab; Chrysler Town & Country minivan; and Fiat 500 B-car.

The 500 is slated for production at Chrysler’s assembly plant in Toluca, Mexico, and will be sold in select urban markets at dealerships featuring dedicated “salons.”

The prospect of selling the 500 iconic B-car, which took Europe by storm when it debuted in 2007, has generated “a high level of interest” from dealers, Marchionne says.

But, he reminds, geography will determine allocation. So don’t expect to see the 500 sold in markets such as rural Texas where, “from a size standpoint, it’s probably just offensive,” Marchionne jokes.

As for the state of Chrysler’s dealer body, the CEO concedes there is residual bitterness about the restructuring process that trimmed the network by some 100 stores.

“I understand this is an emotional issue,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what I say or do, I can’t take the emotions out of it.”

Chrysler welcomes arbitration to settle claims by dealers who maintain they were unfairly eliminated, but in the interest of moving the auto maker forward, Marchionne stands by the decisions that were made.

“We’ve done it,” he says. “We own the camel.”

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