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30th April 2010

Chrysler Dealers, Workers And Analysts Agree: It’s Time To Start Showing Off The New Chrysler

posted in Car News Articles |

Back in February, we took note of Chrysler’s “principled” stand on new-product secrecy, concluding:

Let’s face it: Chrysler needs buzz, hype, awareness, some kind of excitement surrounding its future generally and its forthcoming products in specific (if only in the irritating “teaser” format) almost as much as it needs anything else. Because as things stand right now,the baseline perception of Chrysler is of a dying company with nothing to offer. In this light, Chrysler’s principled rejection of hype is far more likely to be interpreted as keeping rushed semi-refreshes under wraps so they won’t be mocked to death by the time they go on sale. If that’s not the case, Chrysler has nothing to lose and everything to gain by building consumer awareness of new products. If it is, well, the truth will out sooner or later.

And apparently we’re not the only ones who think so. In fact, if the Detroit News is to be believed, literally everyone seems to think that Chrysler needs to start being more open, not only about its forthcoming products, but at every level of its business.

The Chrysler consensus is summed up by analyst Joe Phillippi of Autotrends Consulting, who tells the DetN:

Chrysler is much better off because the cost structure is dramatically improved. But without a portfolio of new products to trumpet, it’s tough to get consumers excited. They have to be much more visible. There are not even spy shots out there creating a buzz

This desire to create the impression that Chrysler has a viable new product strategy is echoed by the Canadian Auto Workers’ boss Ken Lewenza. The DetN sums up Lewenza’s critique, which centers on Chrysler’s next product launch, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, thusly:

The first significant new product on the way is the remade Jeep Grand Cherokee. Production begins next month in Detroit, and the SUV hits showrooms in June. A concept version was shown at the 2009 New York auto show, but the vehicle has been under wraps since then.

I don’t know why (Chrysler) is being so secretive,” said Ken Lewenza, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union.

He respects Marchionne’s decision not to show vehicles too far in advance, but said the argument breaks down when a model launch is imminent. Lewenza sees Grand Cherokees on the road for testing, but nothing at auto shows or in the media. He contrasts that with General Motors Co.’s strategy: “They dominate the ads. They are the leader in bragging about their products right now.”

And the Grand Cherokee is by far Chrysler’s most visible future product. In contrast, the next-gen Chrysler 300 and Sebring, Dodge Charger and Avenger, and the rest of Chrysler Group’s 14 product re-launches that are scheduled to take place by the end of 2011, are nearly invisible to the buying public. This radio silence gives consumers no reason to think of Chrysler as anything but the moribund, bankrupt, second-tier automaker it is supposed to no longer be.

And unfortunately, the problems don’t end with consumers. Even inside Auburn Hills, there are concerns that Chrysler isn’t changing fast or completely enough.

Outside of Chrysler’s executive ranks, workers complain that middle management remains wed to practices in place when the automaker filed for bankruptcy on April 30, 2009.

Marchionne’s vision is inspiring, but it hasn’t reached the middle and lower ranks of the company, said one veteran product development employee who asked not to be named because workers are discouraged from speaking publicly without Chrysler approval.

Purchasing boss Dan Knott confirms this lack of leadership trickle-down, explaining:
I drink the Kool-Aid. In many cases, I’m making it. Senior management is getting it. At lower levels some get it, some don’t.
And according to the DetN, Knott’s suppliers aren’t getting it either.
some see opportunities to win bigger global contracts, given the $68 billion in combined purchasing spending by Chrysler and Fiat. Others are afraid to quote jobs and invest hard-won capital only to get caught if Chrysler doesn’t survive…. “Suppliers are starting to see transparency,” [Knott] said. “It has not driven all the way down yet but we are working on it.
Which might explain why we aren’t seeing new products. In any case, all of this is making Chrysler’s remaining dealers extremely nervous. So nervous, in fact, that they’re downright nostalgic about the bad-old-days under Cerberus. One dealer claims:
A year ago, even though it was horrific times, there was more trust and pulling together
Another adds:
Chrysler “will never be the transparent company it was in the past.”
Of course, few complain about secrecy at companies like Apple, which consistently produce new products that resonate with consumers. The problem at Chrysler is that nobody knows what to expect, and that secrecy tends to lead observers to conclude the worst. And now, nearly all of Chrysler’s stakeholders seem to agree. Chrysler Group is spending plenty of money on new advertisements for old products, but now the company needs to show that it’s not just in survival mode. Chrysler needs to show dealers, suppliers, consumers and yes, even its own employees, that the company actually has a future. Otherwise, everyone will assume it doesn’t… and if that happens, they’ll be right.

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