6,000 Car Buyers Can't Be Wrong… Can They?
Even as Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli is talking of billion dollar losses, his Dodge Boys are declaring the yet-to-be-seen Challenger SRT8 a runaway hit. The Detroit News reports that over 6k customers plunked down deposits this week for the $37,995 retro musclecar– much to the glee of dealers, some of whom have been dodging tumbleweeds on the showroom floor for years. Over half of the Challenger preorders specified "Hemi Orange," with the rest divided evenly between black and silver (the only other colors available). Placing an order only guarantees a Challenger challenger a place in line. With 2008 production limited to 10K units, there's gonna be a whole lot of disappointed muscleheads. The real determination whether or not the Challenger is a sales champ arrives in 2009 when the full line of cars, styled after one of the worst-selling '70's pony cars, hits the streets (or not). At that point, the new Challenger will be going head-to-head with the new… wait for it… here it comes… Chevrolet Camaro. And, lest we forget, the old new Mustang.
The problem isn't whether the Challenger will appeal only to "geezers," or whether muscle cars were dumb back in the 1960s. The problem is that Chrysler - and the rest of the Big Three - seem to view the excitement generated by vehicles like this as a substitute for building modern, reliable family sedans and crossovers that most people will actually buy. Lots of people - not just geezers - will salivate over the Challenger. I like it, too, and I'm not a geezer (at least, I hope that I'm not). But most of those people who look longingly at the Challenger will then drive to the Toyota store and sign the contract for a Camry or RAV-4. The Challenger is no substitute for a Sebring/Avenger that is fully competitive with the Accord, or a Dodge subcompact that can stand toe-to-toe with the Civic. As for nostalgia - the original Challenger (and 1970 Barracuda) were considered flops at the time. They entered a declining market for pony cars; they never met their original sales projections; and their quality was absymal even by the standards of the early 1970s. The Camaro Z-28 was a better all-around performer, while the Mustang was a better "secretary's special" (don't laugh - the Mustang's popularity with women is why it has survived while the others died) or "second car" for the family that wanted something inexpensive and stylish. The Hemi drank gasoline like it was going out of style and was hard to keep in tune. The interiors featured acres of cheap, hard plastic with ergonomics that were lousy even for the time. Like it or not, it was the Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant/Duster, along with Dodge trucks and vans, that kept Chrysler in business during the early 1970s.
As Geeber and Whatdoiknow stated above, having a car people talk about or look at or smile at or reflect nostalgically about is not enough. If people won't lay down cash on it, what good is it? Yes, I suppose it might "get people into the showroom," but then what? Short of having salesmen rob the customers at gunpoint I don't see what financial gain could come from merely "getting people into the showroom." Would our Challenger-drooling muscle car fan be inclined to buy a Sebring? Or (God help us) a Caliber? Why? Because it was in the same showroom as the Challenger they wanted to see? Or because they were in a hurry to buy a car and, heck, they're already in the showroom anyway (the "impulse buy" theory of sales, I guess.) But a $25,000 - $40,000 car is not a tin of Altoids or a gossip magazine. It isn't something most people will buy on impulse. Seeing as how Chrysler has such a dismal lineup of "regular" cars, how does getting an aging boomer or even a twentysomething muscle car buff into the showroom translate to more sales? And what does it say about the company's confidence in itself that the only "new" ideas it has are to mine the old ideas of generations past?
Chrysler has a habit of creating non-mass-appeal vehicles. Magnum. Viper. Crossfire. Prowler. I think my Dad epitomizes the metro Detroit attitude when he says that muscle cars must have V-8s. This is simply not true any more. I feel that this car will be out of the price range of most of those who want it.
Detroit needs to figure out how Toyota can go without updating the Corolla for five years and still sell a metric buttload of them. (I'm not sure Toyota actually knows itself.) Flavor of the moment cars like the Challenger are not the key to profitablity; selling a ton of something where the engineering costs have been paid off years ago is. Now, the domestics actually have something like that-their full size pickups. They are updated rarely and sell in huge numbers despite that. However, that's a declining market segment overall.