Chrysler missing small car sales opportunity
Jun. 18, 2011
Chrysler, for all of its recent improvements, is missing out on one of the biggest opportunities of the year: a chance to grab a larger slice of the small-car segment while Japanese automakers try to rebuild their car supplies after the March earthquake and tsunami that disrupted operations.
Sales of the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic -- typically the industry's small- car leaders -- slipped more than 35% last month, giving Detroit automakers with new small cars a shot at the small-car market long dominated by the Japanese.
In May, the Chevrolet Cruze was the top-selling compact car, beating the second-place Ford Focus by just about 400 cars, according to Autodata. Overall, domestic share of the small-car market jumped 8 percentage points to 31% last month.
The gains come as the demand for small cars has been increasing because of rising gas prices.
Compact car sales through May 30
"I think it's been one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities" for Ford and GM, said Jeremy Anwyl, CEO ofEdmunds.com.
Chrysler, meanwhile, lags far behind the pack, with the Dodge Caliber hatchback, which received a new interior in 2010 but is otherwise the same as the version introduced in 2006.
Joe Veltri, Chrysler's vice president of product planning, is well aware of the void and intends to fill it early next year with a new Dodge compact sedan.
"We are eager to get one out there, but we also have very good products in many other segments that are doing incredibly well," Veltri said.For now, Veltri points out that, in May, Chrysler was the only Detroit automaker to report a sales increase and gain market share.
Crucial Dodge compact to be built on Fiat platform
The new Dodge compact car that Chrysler launches next year will be the company's first based on a Fiat platform.
That will make it a closely watched centerpiece of the new Chrysler-Fiat linkup and one that is critical for the Auburn Hills automaker to finally break its over-reliance on trucks.
Through May, 74.6% of Chrysler's U.S. sales were of light trucks, a category that includes vans, pickups, SUVs and crossovers. That compares with 58.1% for General Motors and 62.7% for Ford.
The new Dodge sedan will give Chrysler a chance to do what Ford and GM have done already -- offer an attractive, fuel-efficient compact car that competes with stalwart nameplates like the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic.
Having a competitive compact car is important for automakers because it is the second-largest vehicle segment in the U.S. with annual sales of about 2 million.
But it's been a long time since Chrysler has had a credible compact car in the U.S.. Before the Caliber, Chrysler built the Dodge Neon, which was discontinued in 2005.
Chrysler also needs to catch up on subcompact cars. Ford launched the Fiesta last summer and GM will launch the Chevrolet Sonic this fall.
While sales of the Fiesta still lag behind the Nissan Versa, Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris, the car has helped Ford gain customers in markets such as California where it has traditionally been weak.
GM, meanwhile, said last week it will sell the sedan version of the Sonic at a starting price of $14,495 and is counting on it to round out its passenger car lineup.
Joe Veltri, Chrysler's vice president of product planning, said one of the main goals of the five-year plan Chrysler devised with Fiat is to use the Italian automaker's platforms and engines to quickly rebalance Chrysler's car and truck lineup. "You are not going to tackle this thing all at once," Veltri said. "We are putting ourselves in a position to achieve the plan that we laid out ... which is to get to worldwide sales of 2.8 million units by 2014."
Dodge small car on the way
Veltri said Dodge's new compact sedan will be a sporty, fun-to-drive, fuel-efficient car.
"When we designed the car, one of the priorities was fuel economy," Veltri said. "We focused on it in the design, in the aerodynamics of the design, in the weight, and we focused on it in the powertrain."
While Veltri declined to reveal Chrysler's fuel economy goal, competitors such as the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra all get 40 m.p.g. on the highway with at least one version of their compact models.
The compact Dodge, to be built at Chrysler's plant in Belvidere, Ill., will be the first of several vehicles Chrysler plans to build on a widened version of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta -- a sculpted hatchback with a distinctive triangular grille that Fiat sells in Europe.
The same platform will likely be used for a new compact car for Chrysler in 2012 and could serve as the basis for the U.S. reintroduction of the Alfa Romeo brand in 2013.
"It will be very, very important for Chrysler to get this car right," said Ed Kim, director of industry analysis for consulting firm Auto Pacific. "And it will really serve as the first barometer of just how well the whole Fiat and Chrysler tie-up is going."
The new Dodge, if it meets certain fuel-economy standards, also could play a role in the ongoing consolidation of Fiat and Chrysler. Under Chrysler and Fiat's 2009 agreement with shareholders, Fiat is able to increase its ownership stake in Chrysler by another 5% when it launches a vehicle in the U.S. with a combined, unadjusted 40 m.p.g. rating by the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Unadjusted" refers to the raw mileage data generated in EPA testing before it is adjusted downward by roughly 25% to get a more realistic real-world driving number for the window sticker.
More small cars to follow
Important as it will be, the new Dodge is just one of several small cars, advanced engines and fuel-efficient technologies that Chrysler plans to launch over the next several years, Veltri said.
Using Fiat platforms, the automaker plans to introduce subcompacts for Dodge and Chrysler in 2013 and a replacement for the midsize Chrysler 200 in 2013. Jeep, meanwhile, will get a new subcompact model in 2013 while the compact-sized Compass and Patriot will be replaced by one SUV in 2013.
What's more, Chrysler will introduce eight-speed transmissions on its Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger this fall that will help the automaker improve its fuel efficiency 25% by 2014.
All told, by 2014, Chrysler will have six all-new compact or subcompact vehicles on the road as well as its Fiat 500, giving the automaker a far more balanced portfolio than it has today.
"That's where they have been lacking and where the competition is really strong," said Tracy Handler, senior analyst with IHS Automotive.