Chrysler Suicide Watch 19: Imperial Remnant

Justin Berkowitz
by Justin Berkowitz

Last week, Chrysler announced they’d cancelled plans to build their super-sized 300, the Imperial sedan. Company Spinmeister David Elshoff cited new, more stringent EPA mileage and emissions regulations and added a moral spin: given the “current climate,” bringing the Imperial to production would have been "irresponsible." Regardless of the need to conform to political correctness and regulations yet to be enacted, the “poor man’s Phantom” had few friends in the punditry biz. (The word ugly featured prominently in their analysis.) And yet, deep-sixing the Imperial was a big mistake.

To recap: aside from Jeep, Chrysler’s LX platform cars have been the automakers only functional success since the 300 debuted in ‘04. In the first half of 2007, the 300, Charger and Magnum sold a combined 145k units (including the endlessly scorned fleet sales). That's a pretty impressive accomplishment considering that the base cars are saddled with an overburdened 190hp 2.7-liter six cylinder engine connected to a four-speed slushbox. Or the not-entirely-unexpected fact that Chrysler has done nothing to build on the models’ success.

This neglect lies at the heart of Chrysler’s boom-and-bust problem. The cycle is simple: teetering on brink of disaster, Chrysler bets the farm on a new car. The finished product is a good idea, adequately executed with bang-up-to-the-minute looks and acceptable functionality. The press goes wild. Chrysler lets its Savior sit and rot while competitors catch up and move forward. The company once again peers into the precipice of penury and prepares for yet another four-wheeled Hail Mary.

So here we are, with a three-year old Chrysler 300 and Co. Their interiors are still unacceptably bland and rubbery. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) still describes their side impact rating with a curt “internal organ injuries likely.” More disconcerting (from a marketing standpoint, not your liver’s), Chrysler doesn’t have a clue where the 300 and its platform siblings go next.

Ask Porsche or Jaguar; evolution is a bitch. Move too far away from a model’s original design and you alienate your base. Stand pat and at some point everyone who wants one, has one. Either way, after the initial surge, conquest sales are a constant uphill struggle. When you’re talking about a car with an iconic design and a tightly gathered brand proposition— 911, MINI, Beetle, Mustang, 300, Charger, Magnum— the struggle is even harder.

The Imperial was a bold attempt to extricate Chrysler from this predicament. Although stretching the brand to include a $50k stretched 300 may seem a bit of a stretch, Chrysler was once an upscale brand. A reasonably priced Imperial would have been just the thing to move the company upward and forward. Much as BMW’s 7-Series casts warm fuzzies on the “lesser” 5-Series, the Imperial could have served as a step-up for 300 drivers.

If Chrysler had decided to put the Imperial’s hypothetical budget into developing their existing LX cars— new engines, interiors, gizmos, suspension components, etc.—you could make a good case for ditching the XXXL LX. If Chrysler were spending the development bucks on rescuing the lame and lamentable Sebring, you could also—

Actually, no. Chrysler doesn't have a prayer of going toe-to-toe with Toyota. Test drive a four-cylinder Sebring and a four-cylinder Camry back-to-back, witness the utter devastation and then you too can see why Bob Lee, Chrysler’s head of powertrain development, called the Sebring an “embarrassing miss.” Besides, why reinvent the wheel? The LX cars were a hit. Stylish, big rear-wheel-drive cars differentiate Chrysler from Toyondissan. Connect the dots.

And if EPA regulations are becoming more restrictive, pulling the plug on the Imperial is not the answer. (In fact, it’s a particular craven solution.) How about lightening the load and/or fitting it with more fuel efficient engines, including Chrysler’s well-regarded three liter Euro-diesel. And anyway, given the volume of Chrysler 300s and Dodge Chargers, fuel economy need not be a selling point.

Let’s get real: people buying cars equipped with Hemi engines clearly aren’t gas pump sensitive souls. So what if these are not volume-leader automobiles? If the LX triplets were better products, higher margins could offset their lower sales numbers.

By killing the Imperial, Chrysler is yet again demonstrating a void where its automotive acumen should be. Stylish, big, powerful and distinctive ought to be the buzzwords on their dry-erase board. If you must, cross off “big.” But the other attributes should be treated like pre-safari inoculations.

When Chrysler sticks to this approach– the Charger, 300C, Magnum, Jeep Wrangler– it sees green. When it deviates– the Sebring, Avenger, Aspen, Compass– salesmen have to feed their kids toothpaste sandwiches. With the Imperial, Chrysler had a shot at selling a vehicle in the winning category. As far as stockholders and stakeholders are concerned, not building the Imperial was irresponsible. What was Chrysler thinking when they cancelled it? They weren’t.

Justin Berkowitz
Justin Berkowitz

Immensely bored law student. I've also got 3 dogs.

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  • Jthorner Jthorner on Jul 28, 2007

    I still see Chrysler ending up as the automotive equivalent of Schwinn. A storied name slapped onto imported and/or outsourced products. It will start with small cars from China. Then you will see a few good North American and/or Mexican factories sold off to companies like Magna who will do the actual manufacturing. 20 years from now I bet that the Chrysler company is a design and marketing organization which outsources everything else. If Cisco can be huge without owning any manufacturing capacity than why not Chrysler? If I were running Chrysler I would much rather have a set of supply contractors to negotiate with rather than the UAW thugs.

  • Gentle Ted Gentle Ted on Jul 29, 2007

    As for Diesel use in North America, I would buy one if I had the money, I do have a Diesel Tractor for cutting my large lawn, have had it since 1985 with little maintenance and it still runs well! That being said I saw a study somewhere that said that the Refiners dont make enough Diesel fuel to fuel the Diesels should the manufactures go that way? Make it interesting doesnt it. My friends in Scotland drive diesel Toyota cars, they like them too!