Let's be honest, it isn't easy being a Detroit executive in the new millennium. The Japanese are coming on strong in light trucks, the Koreans are gaining market share, and it's a buyer's market dominated by profit-sapping givebacks. Compounding these problems is Detroit's short-sighted emphasis on cutting costs at the expense of building better cars and trucks.
All these problems are bad enough, but I think that beleaguered Chrysler, the American division of DaimlerChrysler), has another serious shortcoming: How it markets and sells its vehicles. I'm not talking about whether it was a good idea to hire Grammy winner Celine Dion to sing up Chrysler. To me, Chrysler's marketing mistakes are far more serious.
The big issues:
1. Killing Plymouth.
2. Plans for a "sissy Jeep."
3. Moving Chrysler upscale.
4. Combining Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep showrooms.
Chrysler is also in a quandary over what to do with its legendary Jeep brand. The previous management, the Americans, made the brand Jeep mean something. In order to wear the Jeep badge, every model had to make it across the Rubicon Trail, a 22-mile raw northern California trail. Only vehicles that could survive the toughest conditions--over boulders, across water and through sand--were called Jeeps.
With all the new sport utility vehicles on the market, it is no surprise that Jeep sales have softened since 1999, when the division sold 555,000 trucks. Still, Jeep sold 460,000 units last year, which is more than double the SUV sales of Toyota's Lexus division, BMW or DaimlerChrysler's own Mercedes. But Chrysler people figure they could sell lots more if they could make a lower-priced Jeep model--even if it might not crawl the Rubicon. (I call it the "sissy Jeep.") And it looks as if they will do just that.
I don't think that Chrysler should walk away from the growing market for "softer" crossover SUVs. But such SUVS could carry the Dodge or Chrysler name, or they could revise the old Eagle brand once used by the firm's dealers for such lesser vehicles. Otherwise, I fear that Chrysler runs the risk of eventually destroying the integrity of Jeep.