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Chrysler's big year: Imported from Detroit, Toledo and Turin

Dec. 27, 2011

Chrysler's big year started with brilliant "Imported from Detroit" commercials at the Super Bowl and is ending with previews of the 2013 Dodge Dart. Many great vehicles came between.

It's only a start as Turin-based Fiat continues to polish its American star.
Sales arise

Numbers only tell part of Chrysler's story, but they're impressive.

Retail sales increased 51 percent in November versus a year earlier. It's the 20th consecutive month of year-over-year increases and the sixth in a row with gains of at least 20 percent. Chrysler brand sales were up 92 percent; Dodge posted a 43 percent gain.

November was the best one for Jeep since 2003 and was the sixth-consecutive sales record for Wrangler this year.

Other highlights include a 160 percent increase for the Dodge Charger, 496 percent jump for the Chrysler 200 and a November sales record for the Jeep Compass. Grand Cherokee had its best month since August 2006. The Chrysler 300 was up 215 percent, and the Dodge Journey stepped up 38 percent.

Not a bad year.
Gathering wheels

Although made possible by a slowly recovering economy, those numbers have more to do with vastly improved products. Each of Chrysler's brands has compelling new models.

Jeep is a surprising success. Sales are up backed by vehicles like the 470-horsepower Grand Cherokee SRT8, heavily revised Compass crossover and Arctic editions of the Liberty and Wrangler. Glacier-busting Wranglers now offer a 285-horsepower 3.6-liter V6. Both of the new Arctic editions' cool looks are fortified with hard-core 4x4 systems -- exactly as expected from Jeep.

Chrysler's 300 sedan stormed highways with its Mercedes-derived chassis and 470-horsepower HEMI V8, but the sleeper of the group is the 300S. A 292-horsepower V6 that achieves 19/31 mpg city/highway, available 363-horsepower V8 and Detroit style are hard to ignore. Chrysler also finessed the grilles and interiors of the 200 sedan/convertible and Town & Country minivans. The 200 convertible remains a popular four-place cruiser with a choice of soft- or hard-tops.

Dodge builds excitement with the Challenger 392 Yellow Jacket that gleams like sunshine and goes like lightning thanks to a 470-horsepower 392-cubic-inch HEMI V8. Like the Charger SRT8, it features a two-mode adaptive suspension system.

The big Durango crossover also is potent, especially while sharing the Grand Cherokee's excellent chassis, 290-horsepower V6 and 360-horsepower V8 engines. A sportier interior, 283-horsepower V6, tighter handling and Stow n' Go seats anchor the original minivan's reign at the top of charts. While officially a Ram, the 3500 Megacab Laramie Longhorn dually -- motivated by 800 lb.-ft. of turbo diesel torque -- pulls up to 22,750 pounds. More civilian Rams, including a new police variant, also are very nice.

If none of this excites you, check out the Fiat studios. All models recall Italy, but the 500C Gucci edition, with a retractable roof, choice of white or black paint, and green/red stripes keep JLo looking fabulous -- for just $23,500. Complete the look with Gucci luggage and apparel.
Shooting a Dart

Chrysler/Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne recently announced that a Fiat-based Jeep Liberty crossover will be built in the brand's historic Toledo manufacturing complex, but that will be old news soon. Dodge released information for the new Dart compact that will debut during January's Detroit auto show.

Based on Alfa Romeo architecture, Dart will employ styling themes seen on the full-size Charger. Dodge signatures like a split-crosshair grille, projector headlamps, LED tail lamps and dual exhausts should give the car more attitude.

Its interior is beautifully high-tech. Three four-cylinder engines will be available to provide class-leading efficiency and performance. This car promises to be a highlight of next year's success.

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